Northwestern needed an emotional response following a dispiriting 1-3 start to the season. Four home games, none of them particularly inspiring, had the Wildcats thinking the worst about the season and the future of their program.
Nothing was going to change dramatically in the course of the regular season. That is not exactly how Northwestern does things. The Wildcats just had to find a way to right the ship and salvage at least a small piece of their season.
For Pat Fitzgerald, there is nothing that should get the team riled up more than the game against Iowa. He has a personal history with them and Gary Barnett always targeted the Hawkeyes as the program the Wildcats needed to meet. If there was a symbol of the precariousness of Pat Fitzgerald’s program the last few years it was how uninspired Northwestern looked going up against Iowa.
Needing a win — needing to show any sign of life — the Wildcats showed up at Kinnick Stadium. The Wildcats played with energy and swagger (for lack of a better term). They pushed and controlled the pace. They dominated the lines (for the most part). And they played Northwestern football. Probably for the first time all year.
The Wildcats breaded some hope into the rest of the season in one victory. But they still have work to do.
A lot of the story of this season has been about the play along both lines.
The offensive line has struggled to keep Clayton Thorson upright. The defensive line has struggled to get consistent pressure and push.
This was against everyone — from Nebraska to Illinois State.
If there was strain that was common in Northwestern’s now-two wins, it was the play along the line. Specifically the defensive line. Northwestern was able to get pressure on the quarterback, control the line and limit the run game.
Ifeadi Odenigbo recorded four sacks in the game and had his hands all over C.J. Beathard all afternoon. The Hawkeyes ran for just 79 yards. Even Akrum Wadley could not break the Northwestern defense.
The Wildcats gave up big drives and big plays. It was hardly a a perfect game defensively. But the Wildcats stepped up their pressure in big moments and controlled the game most of the way.
In the moments Northwestern needed it to close the game, the team got sustained pressure and made life hard for Iowa. This team can still generate the pressure it needs to succeed. Not all the time like last season. But enough. At least for Saturday.
Austin Carr is a stud
If there is one thing that has become clearer offensively it is Austin Carr is more than some flash in the pan. Every week, despite Northwestern’s offensive inconsistencies, Austin Carr finds a way to do something crazy.
Carr had six catches for 73 yards and three touchdowns. That included a crazy sliding catch in the corner of the endzone where Carr somehow caught the ball before his left foot landed out of bounds.
He continues to lead the conference in receiving yards. That does not seem to be decreasing.
Thorson’s passing numbers are still a bit hard to figure. He passed 18 for 30 for 164 yards and three touchdowns — all to Carr. Carr remains his safety valve. Thorson looks better in some ways, but looks worse in many others. Or at least the same inconsistent self.
Thorson though has a legitimate option at wide receiver, for the most part. Carr will make catches when he is targeted. The Wildcats just have to find a way to free him up and get him open.
Questionable decisions still reign
The Wildcats though still have to overcome their own questionable decisions. That is a problem that is not going away.
Northwestern will get conservative with their play calling and cannot get a sustained drive when the team absolutely needs it. Up seven late in the game and facing a third down, the Wildcats called for a zone read which Justin Jackson dutifully stretched. Running it to the short side of the field gave him few chances to turn up field.
It was a doomed play. The kind of play call Northwestern fans have gotten used to.
Thorson still makes errant throws. He misses passes the Wildcats absolutely need him to make to sustain drives or create manageable third downs and the team can still over rely on Justin Jackson — he finally broke through for 171 yards and a 58-yard touchdown but it came on 26 carries.
Northwestern certainly improved. The team got the win after all. And the offense looked alive and dominant for the most part. The team controlled time of possession for a change and looked like the better team.
Still, Northwestern did not seem able to get out of its own way in some instances. A theme that seemingly continues. The Wildcats had a big lead — twice — and nearly lost them both times. This was not a team ready to step on throats and take the win. Northwestern simply had to hold on, like the team usually does.
At least the Cats found a way to come out on top.