IOWA CITY, IOWA – With the Iowa football team finishing 12-0 during the regular season, it’s hard to say there was a turning point.
Was it Marshall Koehn’s 57-yard field goal as time expired that stunned Pittsburgh 27-24 in the third game? Or the 10-6 victory at Wisconsin in the Big Ten opener when Badger quarterback Joel Stave stumbled after taking the snap at Iowa’s 1-yard and then fumbled the ball away to the Hawkeyes?
Or maybe it was when Minnesota’s onside kick sailed out of bounds after the Gophers had trimmed the deficit to 40-35 with 1 minute, 16 seconds remaining in the 10th game.
This historical season, which will be capped by Iowa’s sixth appearance in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1 against Stanford, has been one turning point after another.
The fourth quarter against Iowa State was a turning point because that’s when Iowa scored two touchdowns, turning a 17-17 nail-biter into a 31-17 victory in Ames.
So instead of a turning point, is there a defining win, a victory that maybe stands above the others because of what happened on the field and because of the circumstances off the field?
Without question there is; the 40-10 beat-down against Northwestern on Oct. 17 in Evanston, Ill., is Iowa’s crowning achievement to this point.
A battered, bruised and depleted Iowa team turned a precarious situation into a lopsided victory against a quality opponent on the road.
“It’s hard. Every step is so important,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. “That’s what’s neat about college football. Everything you do really has bearing. You can lose early and still win it. That happened to Ohio State a year ago. I’m not saying it’s life or death. But everything is important. Every little small victory, the little things that people aren’t aware of sometimes, those are important things.
“But I think as much as anything, the Northwestern game was really, going into our bye week, we were really hamstrung a little bit about injuries and those types of things. And then Jordan (Canzeri) goes down right away. And the way the team responded to me was really emblematic of the way this football team has carried themselves this year. If I had to pick one moment, that’s not a specific moment, but kind of a game was really important in our development.”
The Hawkeyes had so many reasons to lose against Northwestern, not the least of which was the quality of the opponent.
The Iowa offensive line was gutted by injuries and was without both starting tackles.
Quarterback C.J. Beathard probably was at his worst physically and barely able to move from the pocket.
All-Big Ten senior defensive end Drew Ott had suffered a season-ending knee injury against Illinois in the previous game.
Senior receiver Tevaun Smith had missed the previous two games with a knee injury and then barely played against the Wildcats and had little impact.
Starting running back LeShun Daniels was unavailable for the Northwestern game because of an injury.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, senior running back Jordan Canzeri sprained his ankle in the first quarter against Northwestern and didn’t return.
“I think there were a lot of moments like that during the season, but I think Northwestern was also a big moment,” Beathard said. “We had a lot of injuries. I can’t even remember all of the injuries that we had. We had both of our tackles hurt, our running backs’ hurt. We had a lot of guys just really hurt that entire game.
“And guys had to step up and play tough and that’s what they did. It was a tough game. But we came out and played a really good football game. And played a good team. Northwestern is a good team. And we played tough and made a statement that game.”
The Northwestern game was Iowa’s version of next men in, considering how many players rose to the occasion that day.
Being without starting tackles Boone Myers and Ike Boettger forced the Iowa coaches to be creative on the offensive line.
Sean Welsh switched from his usual spot as the starting left guard to right tackle where Boettger had started the first six games before suffering a high-ankle sprain against Illinois.
Backup Cole Croston replaced Myers as the starting left tackle, while true freshman James Daniels made his first and only start of the season at left guard.
The two mainstays were senior center Austin Blyth and senior right guard Jordan Walsh, both of whom have started every game this season.
So after Canzeri’s injury, Iowa was down to its third-team running back, and yet Northwestern still didn’t have an answer. Iowa rushed for 294 yards, while limiting the Wildcats to just 51 rushing yards.
Sophomore Akrum Wadley replaced Canzeri as the featured running back and then seized the moment by rushing for 206 yards and four touchdowns on 26 carries. Fellow sophomore running back Derrick Mitchell Jr., also played a significant role with 79 rushing yards and 43 receiving yards.
“I’m going to say next-man in mentality,” Croston said when asked to explain Iowa’s performance against Northwestern. “We had some guys hurting on the line. And James, a freshman, stepping in and playing guard. We just know up front that we can play almost every position and we can get the job done.
“Practice might have been a little rough that week. We had guys out of place. And to go out there and be able to execute plays and beat a great Northwestern team, who’s eleven or twelve in the polls right now is very satisfying.”
Northwestern’s success this season is the other side of the equation. Iowa’s injuries combined with Northwestern’s 10-2 record makes what happened on Oct. 17 near the shore of Lake Michigan more impressive.
Iowa already had distinguished itself by the Northwestern game by escaping with victories against Iowa State, Pittsburgh and Wisconsin. The Hawkeyes had struggled to win close games in recent seasons, so it was important to end that trend.
There was nothing close about the Northwestern beat-down, except for Iowa’s 16-10 halftime lead. It was the game in which everything clicked for Iowa despite so many missing pieces.
Some of the national pundits will say that Iowa’s 16-13 loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship game is when the Hawkeyes finally made a statement and showed they were worthy of all the attention and praise.
But that’s a slap in the face of Northwestern, and Wisconsin to a certain extent.
Critics can rip Iowa’s schedule, but that doesn’t minimize what the Hawkeyes accomplished against a very good Northwestern team.
It is the same Northwestern team that defeated Rose Bowl bound Stanford 16-6 in the season opener at home.
Ferentz defended Stanford’s effort that day, saying that it was hurt by the two hour change in time zones. The Northwestern-Stanford game started at 11 a.m., which is 9 a.m. Pacific Coast time.
“I don’t mean to minimize it, Northwestern is a really good football team,” Ferentz said. “I don’t want to diminish what they accomplished. But that was a 9 o’clock game for Stanford. And it’s really good luck for a West Coast team to play a Central Time Zone team at 8:00 or whatever time they play on the West Coast.
“And the same thing going the other direction. Unless it’s a bowl game, you’re there for seven or eight days, you get acclimatized. You take teams out of time zones, I think it’s a huge factor. I think it’s a factor in the NFL. I think stats back that up.”
It makes sense that Ferentz would defend Stanford with Iowa preparing to face the Cardinal in the Rose Bowl. Ferentz doesn’t want his players thinking Stanford is vulnerable in any way.
Stanford’s loss to Northwestern also happened nearly four months ago. A lot has changed since then, including Northwestern’s resurgence under head coach Pat Fitzgerald.
The Wildcats are ranked 12th in the Associated Press poll and are one of four Big Ten teams with double-digit wins this season. But they also were overmatched against an injury-riddled Iowa squad at home.
That’s why the Northwestern drubbing is arguably the high point to Iowa’s historical season. At least for now.