Northwestern oddly played for overtime after giving up the game-tying field goal with 90 seconds left. The wind was blowing hard from the south in NU’s face, so throwing the ball might have been rough. A couple runs from Justin Jackson later and the Cats were in overtime.
That was a respect for the elements and maybe a distrust in his offense. But it was also something else. Something else that has emerged since Big Ten play started.
Northwestern increasingly trusts its defense to stand tall. And every time the Wildcats asked their defense to step up to the plate in Saturday’s surprising 17-10 overtime win, they did. None more so in the second half and overtime. Northwestern gave up just three lonely points in the final two minutes of the game. The Iowa touchdown came at the end of the first half, thanks set up by a 61-yard pass to Matt Vandeberg.
That was pretty much the only offensive play of note in the first half.
This was a game that belonged to Northwestern’s defense. The numbers bear that out.
Iowa gained only 312 total yards with just 69 yards coming after halftime. The Hawkeyes only two big drives were their first two — 23 plays, 118 yards and no points. Northwestern needed some time to get itself settled and then it stood tall.
Akrum Wadley rushed for only 90 yards on 26 carries. Nate Stanley passed for 233 yards on 19 for 33 passing. He struggled especially in the second half, unable to get things going. Northwestern got solid pressure and quickly wrapped up Wadley. They made Stanley sweat it out.
Overall, the team was just solid. It continues their good play from throughout the season. Outside the poor third quarters against Wisconsin and Penn State, the defense has stood out.
The only thing it needs is an offense that can hold the field for a little bit. That remains the thing holding Northwestern back.
The Wildcats offense was not much better than the Hawkeyes for much of the game. They gained 339 total yards. Justin Jackson had 93 yards on 25 carries. But it still felt like he was not the primary player for the team’s gameplan. Thorson threw for 192 yards on 21-for-36 passing. He struggled to gain the rhythm he needs to keep the team moving.
The best example came after a J.R. Pace interception late in the fourth quarter. With Northwestern leading by three, the team threw it twice for little gain and then ran Justin Jackson to set up a fourth down play. Northwestern went three and out deep in Iowa territory after the interception and gave the team some extra momentum to tie the game.
Even that drive played the same way much of the game had. The two teams played between their 30s, both unwilling to kick with a vicious wind blowing from the south and willing to go for it on just about any fourth down in plus territory.
Both defenses typically stood tall. Or found a way to do so.
It was not the prettiest game on offense all game.
For a Northwestern team that has struggled to find its footing all year, it seems the team has found itself. The defense will play well when the offense gives it the opportunity to do so. Stay on the field just a little bit — the Wildcats had 29:16 in possession, almost a perfect split with the Hawkeyes. That is enough to give the defense some leverage.
Eventually Northwestern got the ball to its playmaker, however it had to. The turning-point play — outside of Hunter Niswander’s 80-yard punt that flipped field position in the first quarter — was a 23-yard catch and run to Justin Jackson on third and nine. That brought Northwestern to the two-yard line.
Jackson in space is still the most dangerous weapon Northwestern has. It still feels like the team does not use him enough. So when the Wildcats needed to get a big first down, they turned to him and he delivered with his usually slithery moves in the open field.
The team then relied on its next biggest asset. Its defense to win the game. That has been fairly reliable all game. Doing enough to give the offense a chance.
A chance it barely slid through to score the win Saturday.
The Wildcats are back on track to make a bowl game at 4-3. Perhaps this team even remains the second best team in the Big Ten West. Their early season schedule was just too tough and the expectations to compete with them too high.
Still, Northwestern has established itself defensively this year. That group has grown tremendously since its struggles early in the season. It is not the dominant group that led NU to a 10-win season in 2015. Not even close. It still needs a lot form its offense and still gives up a lot in the secondary. The Wildcats will still keep everything in front of them and prevent big plays.
But the defense continues to stand tall and give NU hope for its future.