By Adam Jacobi on October 26, 2019 at 3:48 pm
Mekhi Sargent leaps
© Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

They're just Northwestern.

Iowa's defense held the hapless Northwestern offense to 202 total yards of offense, stuffed all four fourth-down attempts and shut out the Wildcats for the first time since 1981 in a 20-0 victory in Evanston. Ryan Field ended up sounding a lot like Kinnick Stadium, to nobody's surprise, and by the fourth quarter the black and gold party was on:

The victory gives Iowa two shutouts over Big Ten opponents for the first time since... 2018, when Iowa victimized Maryland and Illinois. Three shutouts would be very notable, as Iowa hasn't pulled off a feat like that since the great 1956 season that ended in a victory in Pasadena. But even still—four conference shutouts since 2018 leads the nation, and nobody else is even at three. So we'll take it as is. 

The start of the game was inauspicious, as Iowa went three-and-out then squandered a Chauncey Golston interception by allowing a sack and missing the ensuing field goal. Given Northwestern's defensive reputation and the previous few weeks of agony on the offensive line, it was fair to fear another week of Flat Stanley. 

"Playing for field position" is a concept that sometimes earns its mockery, but that's exactly the game that was going to be played today—Northwestern by necessity, and Iowa by habit.

A funny thing happened, though: Iowa's offensive line figured out how to keep its quarterback upright, and Stanley responded with some great throws when he had time and room to operate. His overall numbers weren't fantastic—12-for-26, 179 yards and one touchdown—but that includes three Nico Ragaini drops and some smart throwaways in the face of good coverage. Compared to recent road games, this was a solid performance and a step up for a quarterback that we really needed to see it from.

And goodness, that touchdown. Tyrone Tracy, HELLO:

We mentioned that the touchdown had given Iowa an insurmountable 7-0 lead, and... insurmountable it was. Northwestern quarterback Aiden Smith was "plucky" and "a real gamer" and "managed the offense" and it simply did not amount to a thing. It took one last gasp against a prevent defense for the 'Cats to eclipse 200 yards of offense on the day, and they never took a snap inside the red zone. 

Northwestern was able to crack the 50-yard line on four drives, but only hell awaited; the Wildcats ran 13 plays in Iowa territory for a grand total of 16 yards, with all four drives ending on failed fourth-down attempts—none of which were particularly competitive. 

Those missed fourth downs helped Iowa work with short fields and dominate the field position game. "Playing for field position" is a concept that sometimes earns its mockery, but that's exactly the game that was going to be played today—Northwestern by necessity, and Iowa by habit.

It led to some conservative decisions (Iowa ran three draws on third and long*) but that playcalling was predicated on Kirk Ferentz's assumption that Northwestern was not going to execute a long drive to score points against Iowa's defense, and that was a safe and correct assumption. It's not as fun to watch as a 50-point clubberin', but Kirk knew what he wanted to do, and he done did it.

*And converted two of them!

Let's particularly hail the defensive line for their performance today, and by name. Golston's interception was admittedly a fluke—most defensive end interceptions are—but he was an absolute nightmare off the edge all game long (2.5 TFL), personally blowing up multiple fourth-down plays. The Wildcats simply didn't have enough bodies to put on both him and A.J. Epenesa, who had arguably his best game against the run of his career (5 tackles, 4 solo). Both ends rose their NFL draft stock today, and even spot substitute Joe Evans (a walk-on redshirt freshman LB) was very effective coming off the edge when he was on the field (1.5 sacks and a QB hurry). Rising star Daviyon Nixon was productive yet again, contributing two more sacks on the afternoon, and a fifth sack came from fellow DT Cedric Lattimore.

All of which is to say: Iowa's defensive line did whatever it wanted, and it showed off even more depth than expected. Success in the Big Ten starts on the line, and that was a very, very successful afternoon for the defense.

Oh yeah, and Brian Ferentz got a flag thrown on him for saying too many swears.

Anyway, Iowa is now bowl-eligible for the 17th time under Kirk Ferentz, moving to 6-2 (3-2) on the 2019 season with four more games against West Division border rivals remaining on the season. The dream of going to Indianapolis is still very much alive, though not entirely in the team's hands, as the team heads into its second and final bye week.

And that's... at or above expectations coming into the season, right? Iowa split with ISU, Michigan, Penn State and Northwestern*, won out against the rest of the non-threats, and has stayed pretty much where the polls pegged the Hawkeyes coming into the season. That's the profile of a team that's at least meeting expectations, and sometimes you just have to appreciate that for what it is.   

*The reigning Big Ten West champions, mind you—we're talking about preseason expectations here.

So yes, we're pleased. We're pleased to see Iowa murk one of its peskier foes, even if —say it with me—they're just Northwestern, and we're pleased to see another couple weeks in the Top 25 coming before a showdown in Madison. 

Shutouts are awesome. GO IOWA AWESOME.

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