For a kid entering the University of Iowa these days, it’s hard to imagine life without Kirk Ferentz, Ashton Kutcher and Northwestern being that little engine that could in football.
It’s been nearly two decades since Northwestern was the Big Ten’s ultimate bottom feeder in football.
The Wildcats made their historic and improbable breakthrough in 1995 under former coach Gary Barnett, winning a share of the Big Ten title that season. Northwestern has been at least respectable ever since, not an elite program by any means, but hardly a pushover, especially in Iowa’s case.
Iowa (4-3, 2-1) has lost five of its last seven games against Northwestern and many believe it’ll be six of eight losses by the end of the game in Evanston, Ill.
The Wildcats (6-2, 2-2)) are two fourth-quarter collapses from being undefeated this season. They also feature two of the Big Ten’s most electrifying and productive players in quarterback/receiver Kain Colter and running back/return specialist Venric Mark.
And they excel at defeating Iowa.
Northwestern has a 9-6 record against Iowa dating back to 1995. Before that, Iowa had won the previous 21 games in a row.
Northwestern also has a coach who seems to crave the chance to defeat Iowa and has a knack for doing it.
Pat Fitzgerald’s relationship with Iowa dates back to his days as a star linebacker at Northwestern in the mid-1990s. He was the heart, soul and best defensive player for the Wildcats.
He also played for a coach who drew inspiration from trying to defeat Iowa. Barnett used Iowa’s success as a measuring stick for his program and he supposedly instilled in his players a strong dislike for the Hawkeyes.
A pivotal moment came during the post-game handshake in 1994 when former Iowa coach Hayden Fry said to Barnett that he hoped none of his players got hurt during the 49-13 beat-down. Barnett was offended by Fry’s sympathy and some believe it wasn’t a coincidence that Northwestern’s breakthrough came the following season.
Barnett’s influence still is being felt through Fitzgerald, who supposedly has how own issues with Iowa, but he won’t acknowledge it publicly. It dates back to 1995 when Fitzgerald was helping to lead Northwestern’s rise to prominence as an all-America linebacker.
Fitzgerald broke his leg against Iowa in the ninth game of the 1995 season and then missed playing in the Rose Bowl. Whether he blames Iowa for his misfortune is open for debate.
It’s hard to believe that Fitzgerald at age of 37 is the Big Ten’s second-longest tenured coach behind Ferentz. Fitzgerald is in his seventh season as Northwestern coach.
The Wildcats have relied on a fast-paced spread offense to stay competitive under Fitzgerald and the current team is as good as any they’ve had at running it.
That should be a concern for Iowa, considering how Penn State shredded the Hawkeyes by playing at a similar frenetic pace on offense.
“You just have to adapt,” Ferentz said. “I think the thing that affected us more was (Penn State’s) execution the other night.”
Colter is arguably the most versatile player in the Big Ten and he showed it against Iowa last season, finishing with 76 rushing yards, 71 receiving yards and 44 passing yards.
“Every time you play him, there is a different set of challenges it seems,” Ferentz said.
Iowa still prevailed 41-31 against Northwestern last season thanks to a balanced offense that produced 224 passing yards and 155 rushing yards, including 124 from the departed Marcus Coker.
It’s reasonable to think that with a healthier Mark Weisman, a healthier Damon Bullock and a wiser Greg Garmon that Iowa should have success with its rushing attack, even with a depleted offensive line.
But this matchup is just screaming for Iowa senior quarterback James Vandenberg to break out of his funk and seize the moment. Northwestern is banged up in the secondary, and even when healthy, the Wildcats are vulnerable against the pass, allowing a Big Ten worst 279.8 passing yards per game.
Vandenberg will play behind a more inexperienced offensive line, but there should be enough girth to protect him as long as he doesn’t become too stationary in the pocket.
This game is hard to pick because the teams appear so evenly matched. They have enough strengths and weaknesses to balance each other out.
It’s just like it always is when Iowa faces Northwestern in football.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football