IOWA CITY, Iowa —Six minutes into his news conference after yet another disappointing home loss, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald unleashed a sound bite that mixed frustration with urgency.
“If we don’t go out there (to Iowa) with the right attitude and right preparation, we’ll get our fannies whipped. We’ll get crushed,” Fitzgerald said as his voice rose. “These guys had better figure it out pretty quick.”
Fitzgerald’s Wildcats, now 1-3 after a 24-13 Big Ten-opening loss to Nebraska, travel to Iowa City on Saturday to meet the Hawkeyes (noon ET/11 a.m. CT on ESPNU). Just about anything Northwestern had hoped to achieve this season rides on this game. A second loss to a Big Ten West Division team means a likely default on any title plans. Although the schedule barely says October on Saturday, a defeat would require CPR for Northwestern bowl hopes.
The Hawkeyes (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten) have their own issues to work out. The euphoria that accompanied Iowa’s 2015 regular-season campaign has given way to mixed indignation among fans. Iowa dropped a 23-21 decision to FCS power North Dakota State that highlighted several deficiencies. A 14-7 win at Rutgers hardly quelled concerns about Iowa’s run defense or its offensive inconsistency.
The Hawkeyes won 12 games last year and were picked to repeat as West Division champions. Northwestern, the 2015 divisional runner-up, earned 10 victories. Crossroads moments involving Iowa and Northwestern often intersect in critical junctures. This year’s meeting is no different.
Last year it was a battle of ranked foes. Iowa, then No. 17, entered at 6-0 while Northwestern was No. 20 at 5-1. Injuries figuratively crippled the Hawkeyes with both starting tackles, their top tight end, opening-day running back and best defensive player out of the lineup. Quarterback C.J. Beathard was hobbled with a hip injury and barely practiced. Even when starting running back Jordan Canzeri was lost with a first-quarter ankle injury, the Hawkeyes were unfazed. They blew Northwestern off the field with 294 rushing yards in a 40-10 thrashing.
“You go back to the injuries they had going into our game a year ago and you see the way that their next guys stepped up was something probably to me as a coach one of the most impressive things I saw out of the Hawkeyes last year,” Fitzgerald said. “Obviously they went on and ran the table.”
“We got dominated last year in all three phases of the game,” Northwestern linebacker Anthony Walker said this summer. “We got outplayed and we didn’t respond to adversity very well in that game.”
Northwestern’s past has included incredible upsets at Iowa’s expense. From 2008 through 2010, the Wildcats trailed by at least 10 points in every game and won them all. In 2009, Iowa was 9-0 and ranked No. 4 nationally. After the Hawkeyes took a 10-0 lead, Northwestern defensive end Corey Wootton sacked quarterback Ricky Stanzi and forced a fumble in the end zone. Stanzi suffered a high-ankle sprain requiring surgery, Northwestern recovered the ball for a touchdown and rallied for a 17-10 win.
As the Big Ten co-leader in 2010, Iowa led 17-7 with 10 minutes to go at Evanston. Northwestern all-Big Ten quarterback Dan Persa guided the Wildcats on a pair of scoring drives, including the game winner in which he suffered a torn Achilles tendon.
Since 1995, Northwestern leads the series 10-9. While Iowa has won the last three, Northwestern has claimed six of the last 11.
“You look back over the series now we’ve played the last 15 games, it’s pretty much been down the middle, and home field really doesn’t matter,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “It’s down to the best team, the team that plays the best that given day.”
The teams have perplexing issues that belie their perceived strengths. Northwestern boasts one of the league’s best running backs in Justin Jackson, yet the Wildcats rank 119th nationally in rushing offense. Iowa’s defense is led by bona fide NFL prospects defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson and middle linebacker Josey Jewell but sits 86th against the run.
Injuries have hurt Northwestern’s talented secondary, which ranks last in the league with 257.5 passing yards allowed. Likewise, Iowa lost top receiver Matt VandeBerg to a likely season-ending broken foot. The Hawkeyes ranked 98th nationally in pass offense.
While a loss would cripple Northwestern’s title hopes, Iowa would remain alive mathematically. But with old friends Minnesota (Oct. 8) and Wisconsin (Oct. 22) on the horizon, a loss Saturday would prompt Iowa fans to delete the TicketMaster app for Big Ten title game tickets.
It’s awfully early to place games in must-win territory. But this one qualifies — for both teams.