Anybody that thinks “Winning Cures All” hasn’t watched the 2021 Iowa Hawkeye football team. It is a big fat duh that Iowa winning, even in their uniquely excruciating fashion, is 8000% preferable to the alternative. Yet you can’t watch this team and fail to notice that one unit, win or lose, doesn’t ever seem to bring a dish to the potluck. What’s more, the folks in charge don’t seem to want that unit to cook anything anyway because they are just as likely to give everybody food poisoning as make something that is edible, let alone tasty.
I don’t bring this up to be a Bennie Boo-Hoo. Iowa finished the game with more points than Northwestern. Jolly good and well done. I am glad Iowa’s withering Big Ten West title hopes have not yet gone the way of the dodo. I will always cheer for Iowa, even if I have to tape my eyelids open after watching defenders tackling Tyler Goodson on stretch zone runs in the backfield forever. But that does not mean I have to like it, and this game, aside from some sweetness in the second quarter was a heaping pile of ick.
Adding to the aura of unpleasantness surrounding this game was the looming glare on the mug of notorious Hawkeye-hater Pat Fitzgerald. If anyone was motivated to keep Iowa’s season spiraling into a freefall, it would be Ol’ Bum Leg Fitzgerald. He is the equivalent of a spiky-hard baddie in a movie. The one that is pushed out of the helicopter but manages to grab the leg of some important side character on the way out, taking them with them in a final act of spite. For their part, Northwestern came this close to dragging Iowa into the abyss of awfulness with them.
The first quarter was wall-to-wall non-football, as two overmatched offenses putzed around aimlessly, begging for yardage. After four drives Northwestern mustered up 58 yards and four punts, a paltry number that nevertheless completely dwarfed Iowa’s 26 yards on three punts. It was the kind of mud-wrestling awkwardness that has become a staple of Ferentz-ball, with Iowa’s offense stubbornly ramming the ball into a blockade of defenders for little to no gain and a passing game that does little more than flop around awkwardly like a fish out of water.
But then, with 2:16 left to go, and the ball on their own 42, something truly remarkable happened. Alex Padilla, not Spencer Petras, trotted out onto the field to run the show for Iowa’s offense. It is tough to overstate how shocking this is. Ferentz hates doing this kind of thing on principle, and Petras is by all accounts a hard-working, upstanding dude. But after seeing Petras throw panicky checkdowns and skip passes to open receivers to the tune of 2/4 for four yards, it was pretty obvious, even to Kirk, that keeping Petras behind center was unfair to all the other hard-working, upstanding dudes on this squad.
As to the results, you could see the improvement almost instantaneously. It was like Padilla was the adrenaline shot going straight into Uma Thurman’s heart in Pulp Fiction. Iowa offense snapped to life after being clinically dead for a whole quarter. Padilla started with a throwback pass to the tight end that mustered up two yards. On second down, Padilla faked the hand-off, dropped back, had a moment to chill, and lofted a pass to Keagan Johnson into a crease in Northwestern’s coverage for 17 yards. After a nothing run on first down, on second-and-10, Padilla dropped back, saw Johnson in single coverage on the sideline and let rip a beauty of a back-shoulder throw which gave his massive wide-out a chance to make a play (and kept all-world safety Brandon Joseph from getting involved over the top.) Johnson took Woody’s advice and reached for the sky to pull down the pass, getting a foot down for a massive 26-yard gain. On a second-and-10 from the Northwestern 13 Brian Ferentz called a run, and through solid blocking and the NU linebackers looking unsure of where the play was going, Goodson was able to squeeze through a small hole to find a massive lane in the middle of the field to score an easy-looking touchdown. Suddenly Iowa had something they hadn’t had in nearly a month: the lead in a football game.
Northwestern responded by eking out a first down before Andrew Marty decided to take a shot. Marty uncorked a deep bomb on first and 10. Dane Belton, on his man like hypocrisy on a politician, plucked the floating duck out of the air for as pretty an arm-punt as you are likely to see.
This gave the ball back to Iowa’s suddenly swaggerific offense. It wasn’t that Iowa was doing anything all that different, but the players seemed a lot more jazzed to be running the plays. Padilla, after missing a very open Tracy on second down, lightning bolted a throw up the seam to Goodson for a 19-yard gain on third to keep the drive rolling. A couple of plays later Iowa ran a counter to the short side of the field, with LaPorta blocking on the edge to spring Goodson down the left sideline for a lickety-split 41-yard-gain. A few plays later, Arland Bruce Episode IV got the ball on a wide receiver end-around and followed Monte Pottebaum, tip-toeing away from ankle tackles and tightroping his way into the end zone for consecutive touchdown drives. Saints be praised!
It was an exchange of punts for the two offenses before disaster struck. Taylor, doing his rugby punt thing, took the snap, veered to his right and waited a moment before kicking it. In the meantime a Northwestern player had been ole’d, untouched, into the backfield. By the time the ball came off of Taylor’s foot, it was too late, and his punt, blocked, was deprived of its destiny to go screaming down the field.
Northwestern, starting with a first-and-goal from the Iowa 9-yard line, wasted a couple of downs on pointless run plays before getting a receiver wide open in the back of the end zone on the third down. To Iowa’s benefit, Northwestern doesn’t have a real quarterback and the throw was so off that it hit the goalposts. Fitzgerald settled for the field goal after that, the damage officially controlled.
With the ball, two timeouts, and two minutes to work with, there was a nice opportunity to extend Iowa’s lead before getting the ball to start the second half. Ferentz had Iowa’s offense try, sort of, but his heart wasn’t into it. It was the same old bullshit: too many checkdowns, horrible clock management, and a bizarre refusal to throw a Hail Mary at the end of the half. But I can’t get too worked up by a 14-3 lead into the half, even if the strategy was objectively bad here.
As fun as that second quarter was, Iowa’s second half was just one big woof-fest. After trading punts, Iowa put together another scoring drive, thanks to a short field and some really nice quarterbacking from Padilla. Those points would be the final points Iowa would score all game. They were almost a touchdown but a well-covered K-Jo was unable to reel in a tough catch on a nice ball by Padilla in the end zone. Third-and-9 at the Northwestern 10 was too risky a position for Kirk Ferentz’s taste, settling for a running back draw and a field goal, convinced that the 14-point lead would hold.
Ferentz was right, but only just. Iowa's offense gained 53 yards from there on out. Padilla playing was absolutely the correct decision, but he is not a walking panacea that can cure all of Iowa’s offensive ills. Iowa’s boom-or-bust running game went full bust in the second half against the weakest run defense in the Big Ten. Iowa’s offensive line is still a liability, and none of Iowa’s pass-catchers were able to make a play when needed. And the playcalling and decision-making at the top weren’t exemplary either. (Punting up 11 on your opponent’s 38 on 4th-and-5 is no muy bueno.) But Iowa did what they do best: build a lead and hang on to it for dear life.
Northwestern for their part looked like they spent all of halftime lathering themselves in Crisco. Northwestern responded to Iowa’s field goal with one of their own, despite starting at their own 3 thanks to a weird ruling by the refs. (The refs were their own brand of awful in this game, stupefying both teams with their perplexing rulings.) Northwestern spent most of this drive squirming away from tackles, turning dink-and-dunk plays into “god and damn-it” gains,” but the drive stalled out thanks in large part to a baffling sideline infraction against Pat Fitzgerald.
Despite that drive, Northwestern was mostly not a threat to score thanks in no small-part to Andrew Marty not being much of a quarterback. They did drive down the field early in the fourth quarter, working the ball with a big ref-aided assist to the Iowa 25 before Marty floated up a pass into the end zone that Iowa’s fourth-string-but-still-very-solid corner Jermari Harris waited under for the pick, quashing the threat.
It sure looked like Kirk’s conservative approach was going to be vindicated when Northwestern fielded a punt at their own 15-yard line, down 11 with 4 minutes to go. Northwestern seemed content to gobble up six-yard gains, eat up clock, and nab a late score to make this game look a little less terrible. Enter Evan Hull, a man who apparently has the density of a 1000 bowling balls, the slipperiness of 100 eels, and the shiftiness of a Northwestern scatback. Hull had two 31-yard receptions, catching meh passes underneath Iowa’s coverage and reducing Iowa’s defense to a bumbling, Three Stooges-level ineptitude in two horrific plays, scoring a touchdown on the second catch for Northwestern at an uncomfortably fast rate.
Ferentz did his usual late game lead thing of running it three times to force Northwestern to use all three timeouts, content to punt the ball away and lean on his defense. This worked out thanks to Northwestern having a QB as bad as Marty, who threw a clunker on his first throw which Dane Belton jumped on, giving the Northwestern bench a WWE staredown as he was tackled. And that was that.
So, uh, yeah. Iowa won. Iowa’s offense is still terrible and it feels like Northwestern was an actual quarterback away from winning that thing. (Iowa still hasn’t beaten a Power 5 team without netting at least 3 turnovers, which is kind of bonkers, both in that this seemingly needs to happen and also that it's happened as often as it has.) The good news is there isn’t a real quarterback left on Iowa’s schedule. So let’s keep-on keeping-on, I suppose.
*Padilla. Look. The toothpaste is out of the tube here. Kirk may try to backtrack and put in Petras again, but short of a Padilla struggle, this seems like an abysmal idea. 18/28 for 172 yards is not great in any real sense, but it is around the maximum that is possible in this offense short of being a superstar runner. Yeah, Northwestern stinks, but those numbers don’t belie how well Padilla played. He kept plays alive with his feet, didn’t get a ton of help from his receivers, and here is the thing that most impressed me: he saw the field really well and was confident and decisive in a way he have very rarely seen Petras be. Let’s add a few different plays with moving the pocket and running and see what he can do.
*Hello defensive pressure. I’ve missed you! It was nice to see a quarterback have to consistently contend with massive dudes in his face.
*Iowa’s tackling was straight-up awful at times (especially in the second half), but it was nice for most of this game to see the defense play with a lead. It is a lot more fun to watch them when you don’t dread every first down.
*Iowa’s young playmakers, eh? Padilla went to them often and they delivered such as they can in this offense.
*I now have to cheer for Northwestern and/or Nebraska to beat Wisconsin. Vomit.