EVANSTON, Ill. — A red-eyed Noah Fant stood teary-faced in front of reporters for nearly 3 minutes answering questions about his drop that sealed Iowa’s 17-10 overtime loss at Northwestern on Saturday.
Middle linebacker Ben Niemann spoke with obvious frustration about the miscommunication that gave Wildcats running back Justin Jackson 23 yards on third-and-9 in overtime. Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson scrambled for 21 yards on third-and-15 that led to the Wildcats’ only touchdown in regulation. A false start on fourth-and-inches forced Iowa to kick a game-tying field goal.
There were misfires and missed blocks and head-scratching offensive play calls and lack of execution. Iowa had the nation’s best offensive line last year and couldn’t run the ball in an empty graveyard this year. If ever Iowa had a team loss from coach Kirk Ferentz on down, it was this one.
From Fant’s pain to running back Akrum Wadley’s concealed anger, the direction of Iowa’s football season is the path of disappointment. At 4-3 overall and 1-3 in Big Ten play, even a faint Big Ten West Division title shot is over before Halloween. A mid-tier bowl game is the high end of the season.
Before the we dig out Ferentz’s contract, scan through the fine print and starting doing buyout math, a loss was predicted by Las Vegas. Iowa was the underdog, especially without All-American linebacker Josey Jewell and safety Brandon Snyder. Senior offensive lineman Boone Myers remains out with a high ankle sprain. Everyone expected a tight game, and it was. Except for two eye-popping Iowa blowouts in 2014 and 2015 and a Northwestern smackdown in 2012, seven of the past 11 in this series have come down to final-minute situations. It doesn’t make this stinky sandwich of a game more palatable, but you knew it was going to taste like this, right?
Here’s the reality with this team. It’s inexperienced at several core offensive positions. That’s at quarterback, wide receiver and tackle. The offensive coordinator is new, too. It takes time to become consistent on offense with new key stakeholders. Injuries have turned the offensive line from peanut butter to jelly. There’s growing pains that will pay off next year, not right now.
Still, this game was for the taking. And everybody should take a bite of said stinky sandwich.
On the first overtime possession, Northwestern faced third-and-9 at the Iowa 24. The Hawkeyes shifted to nickel coverage and linebacker Ben Niemann moved to defend two Northwestern receivers on the right side. Shortly before the snap, sophomore safety Amani Hooker grabbed Niemann and pushed him toward the tackle box. Both wide receivers ran inside routes, and running back Justin Jackson ran straight, then bent right across the field. The wide receivers screened Niemann from picking up Jackson, and the back was open. Niemann missed an arm tackle, and Jackson cruised to the 1-yard line. Two plays later, Northwestern scored to take the lead.
“It was just miscommunication,” Niemann said. “I was supposed to be lined up where I was originally and then we just miscommunicated in the back end. Then I came sprinting in trying to find the running back. I guess that was the uncovered man since I got thrown in there. I tried to run back out and got picked and just me and [Jackson] in the open field. I have to make that play. It was bad communication, but it comes down to me regardless. I was there, and I just didn’t make the tackle.”
On the game’s final play, Iowa went back to its second-quarter touchdown play. Late in the first half and facing third-and-1 at the Northwestern 7, Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley found Fant wide open at the 2-yard line for a touchdown. Two-plus quarters later, the Hawkeyes had fourth-and-3 from the 18. Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz called the same play — albeit with slightly different personnel — and Fant was open at the 13. Stanley put some steam on the pass, and the ball hit Fant in the hands and chest before falling to the ground.
“I have to bring that in,” Fant said. “Obviously that’s a big play for us and one of the deciding factors in the game. I can’t take my eyes off the ball and I have to keep working.
“It’s crazy how that works. One play can be a touchdown, the other one can be a dropped pass for the game. I just have to work on it and be consistent with it and can’t have any more dropped balls.”
Iowa has to run the football. No stat determines Iowa’s team success quite like total rushing yards. Since the start of the 2015 season, Iowa is 23-1 when it hits 100 rushing yards. When it doesn’t, it’s 0-9.
True to form, Iowa rushed for 89 yards on 33 carries against the Wildcats. While the line continues to struggle, the second-half play calling went hand-in-hand with the lack of execution. Iowa returned to its often-failed identity of running into a wall and believing the wall magically will crumble. There were too many inside runs by Akrum Wadley in the second half, and they stacked up like wasted downs.
The Hawkeyes continue to have a fascination of running the football up the middle with two tight ends and a fullback blocking. It brings nearly every defender into the tackle box, and it rarely works. Twice in the second half, Iowa employed it. It totaled 2 yards. The second time, it gained none. That time around, Iowa faced third-and-1 at the Northwestern 26 with less than 2 minutes remaining. The Hawkeyes went big, Wadley ran into the teeth of the defense for no gain, about an inch shy of a first down. However if Stanley would have sneaked it — based on the alignment — it was an easy first down.
“We’re a better football team when we can run the ball efficiently,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “It’s always been that way. That is our plan. That will continue to be our plan. We’ll try to continue that there.”
Running the football remains Iowa’s template to success. But sometimes spreading people out on third-and-1 might loosen up an opponent.
With five games left, the Hawkeyes’ goals are more narrow. They might see Indianapolis from 30,000 feet in the sky, but there’s no pit stop at Lucas Oil Stadium.
But that doesn’t mean the season’s over, either. There are opportunities to make strides and beat rivals. There are chances to knock off championship contenders. With one eye on the future, this team could become a tough out in November. It’s just tough to hide the disappointment in mid-October.
“We just need to finish games,” defensive tackle Matt Nelson said. “Finish plays. Just be finishers. Coach Ferentz said all three of our losses are on the last possession of one-possession games. So we need to finish the game.”
“We’re not quite there yet,” Ferentz said. “When you’re not quite there, you come up short, whether it be by a touchdown or this one was a touchdown in overtime. That’s part of this process.”
It’s a take-your-medicine season. It tastes nasty now but possibly next month and definitely next year, this will look like a new team. It just requires the backwash of patience.