Football: Riker: The Cats got crushed in Iowa. NU fans shouldn’t have expected anything different.


Angeli Mittal/Daily Senior Staffer

Iowa defenders take Northwestern receiver Bryce Kirtz to the ground. The Cats scored just 13 points against Iowa and lost their seventh straight contest.

John Riker, Gameday Editor

IOWA CITY, Iowa — For Northwestern fans trying to muster optimism that the Wildcats would win another game in 2022 and snap a six-game losing streak, Saturday afternoon’s road contest against Iowa had the elements of a potential upset: the NU offense’s momentum against Maryland the previous week, a rivalry with a history of close games and, of course, the Hawkeyes’ offense, which entered the game as the worst unit statistically in the FBS.

Instead, the Cats (1-7, 1-4 Big Ten) never came close. Iowa (4-4, 2-3) came alive on offense — nearly tripling NU’s yardage total and scoring a season-high 33 points — and handed the Cats loss number seven by a 33-13 score. 

Saturday’s result shouldn’t have been a surprise.

Let’s rewind a couple weeks. For those wishing for some sort of turnaround after the Cats’ winless September homestand and tumble to a 1-3 start, NU’s return to Big Ten play has underscored NU’s inability to compete with even the middle tier of the conference. The stretch started with the offense converting five takeaways from the defense into just seven points in a road loss to home state, then continued with losses to a Wisconsin team that had just fired its head coach and to a Maryland squad absent its usual starting quarterback, Taulia Tagovailoa. 

Allowing the offensively challenged Hawkeyes to score on all four of its first half drives and tally a season-high point total on Saturday was a disastrous outcome for NU, but the reality is that it didn’t feel jarring. There are no more alarms left to sound and, for this season at least, the usual stakes have been dashed. 

With its loss in Iowa City, NU ensured that it would finish with back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 2013-14. Those teams won five games each of those years — the Cats need to score a major upset down the stretch to have five wins combined between these past two seasons. The last time NU won five games over a two-season stretch, coach Pat Fitzgerald was a player.

“Nobody likes the way this feels right now,” Fitzgerald said. “This is not why you do what you do, you do it to help guys be as successful as they can be.”

Fitzgerald said after the game that he had no positive takeaways from his team’s performance, and players are looking at restoring the team’s pride and conference-wide perception rather than their usual goals of Big Ten West titles and bowl games as a gauge of a strong finish.

This program requires more than a quick fix to reverse course and to give reason for legitimate optimism. In the immediate term, Fitzgerald reiterated that the ultimate responsibility for the seven-game skid is on his shoulders, but has called for improvement from his players and coaching staff.

“We need our best players to play better,” Fitzgerald said. “I challenged them a couple weeks ago that, Big Ten football, if you’re a starter, you’re expected to perform and play well, and if you’re not, you have no other thing to do than point a thumb. It’s the same thing I’ve done with the staff.” 

One of the most frustrating aspects of this season is the abundance of issues that have doomed this team’s fate, rather than one glaring issue with a solution. 

Sophomore quarterback Brendan Sullivan regressed in his second start behind an offensive line that gave up seven sacks, and Iowa outgained the Cats’ rushing attack 173 to 18. Defensively, NU has battled injuries in the secondary and struggled with third downs and big plays throughout the season. The Cats have given up more than 30 points to Duke, Southern Illinois, a Maryland squad with a backup quarterback and Iowa, and 42 points to a middling Wisconsin offense.

One-on-one breakdowns and miscommunications have been culprits in recent weeks, but it will take some time before the NU can build back up to its Citrus Bowl heights of 2020, and Fitzgerald acknowledges that.

“I’ve got to continue to rebuild the roster a little bit,” Fitzgerald said. “We had a heck of a run with some really good players and those guys made a huge impact. We have to keep developing our guys, keep adding depth and get the roster older.”

The Cats won Big Ten West titles as recently as 2018 and 2020, so it’s hard to fault NU fans for holding the team to a high standard and feeling impatient about the embarrassing recent results. But the cold, hard truth is it will take time and turnover before the Cats will become a consistent winner and contender.

And it will take even longer to prove to the NU faithful that this program is again worthy of high expectations.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @jhnriker

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