Unfortunately, It's an Even Year...
I know we call them just Northwestern around these here parts, but no team in the Big Ten gives me the creeps quite like Northwestern. Whenever I see that flash of purple, hear that obnoxious snarling cat sound effect, or see Pat Fitzgerald’s stupid mug, I get this Pavlovian urge to wretch, like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange. When they are up next on the football schedule, my face just starts to twitch uncontrollably. I can't help it.
In my defense, this isn’t completely irrational. Kirk Ferentz’s Hawkeyes have lined up against the Wildcats 21 times in his tenure, and have only come out on top in 10 of those contests. You can probably count on a couple of fingers the number of times that Northwestern has had a definitive talent advantage in that span. And it isn’t just the overall losing record, but how and when those losses have happened that makes them even more ulcer-inducing.
The losses are usually those gut-wrenching squeakers where you are tormented by one or two plays that would have changed the outcome. Of the 11 losses, only two of them have been by more than a touchdown. (Northwestern dominated the abysmal 2012 Iowa squad and also beat Iowa 21-7 in a very stupid game in 2006, not coincidentally Pat Fitzgerald's first year.) Northwestern also been at the forefront of season-altering heartbreak for the Hawkeyes in 2009, 2018 and 2020. (As a personal aside, the only Big Ten away game I ever went to was Northwestern in 2005. I got to enjoy Iowa blow a 13-point lead in what felt like two minutes to lose the game. Thanks, Brett Basanez.)
All this is tell you that I am legitimately worried about this game. I totally understand the impulse to look at the 2021 Wildcats and wonder how this game could even be close. If not for the prodigious awfulness of Indiana, Northwestern would have been the worst overall team in the Big Ten last year. They have a quarterback situation which looks a fair deal worse than Iowa’s. They had the absolute worst rush defense in the Big Ten last year, with opponents averaging 213 yards/game on the ground, more than 50 yards worse than the next-worst team, Rutgers. And their best overall player, all-world safety Brandon Joseph, is now playing for Notre Dame. And while they were so bad last year it is a virtual guarantee they should be a fair bit better in 2022, it seems really unlikely they would be that much better... on paper.
And yet, if Northwestern comes to town as heavy underdogs, it will give me no solace. Pat Fitzgerald is like Kirk’s twerpy younger cousin who knows all his moves and has enough dirty tricks up his sleeve to negate whatever advantages Kirk thinks he has. Let’s just look at last year’s game, an uncomfortably close 17-12 muckfest. In a sharp indictment of Northwestern’s rush defense, Iowa averaged almost five yards/carry, and still was technically outgained by two yards by Northwestern, and this was Northwestern’s worst defense in a looooooooong time. Wins usually come from having an offense that is just slightly less of a liability than your opponents. Before 2021, you have to go all the way back to the Akrum Wadley coming out party in 2015 to find the last time Iowa got over 350 yards of offense against Northwestern, and getting to even 300 yards has been a rarity.
I haven’t even brought up the bizarre “even-year, odd-year” trend that started four years ago, in which even-year Northwestern teams are great and win the Big Ten West, whereas odd-year Northwestern football teams are terrible and finish in the cellar of the division. They just keep rising from the dead like an 80s horror movie villain. I don’t really buy this as anything other than a weird coincidence, but it does go to show how quickly fortunes can change, in particular in the era of transfers, so you can’t really assume ineptitude to carry over from previous years (excepting Nebraska of course).
If you aren’t sufficiently scared, let me give you one last factoid to try and freak you out. Iowa has not beaten Northwestern in Kinnick Stadium since 2014, which isn’t even that recent of a trend. Ol’ Patty Fitz is 6-3 in Kinnick as Northwestern's head coach. He is just not shy about dropping-trou and leaving a stinky surprise for his hosts in Iowa City. If you can go into this game confident in victory, I’m happy for you. I for one will be holding my breath and clutching my pearls until the game ends, hopefully with a higher number on the scoreboard next to the word "Hawkeyes."
Homer Version: Screw this even-year nonsense. Iowa suffocates an already lifeless Northwestern offense and sends Pat Fitzgerald back to Evanston fuming.
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