By Pat Harty
EVANSTON, Illinois – The Iowa football team often brings out the best in Pat Fitzgerald and the Northwestern Wildcats.
Fitzgerald is sort of like kryptonite to Kirk Ferentz, considering Northwestern has won four of the last five games in the series and has a 9-6 record against Iowa since 2006
Northwestern hardly ever has the advantage over Iowa in terms of talent and depth, but there’s just something about playing the Hawkeyes that causes Fitzgerald to be at his best, and his players to be at their best.
That’s why Saturday’s game at Ryan Field could be dangerous for Iowa, which is coming off back-to-back losses to Purdue and Wisconsin by scores of 24-7 and 27-7, respectively.
Northwestern has by far the worst rushing defense in the Big Ten, and its quarterback play has left something to be desired.
The Wildcats have allowed at least 30 points in all five of their losses, including a 56-7 drubbing at Nebraska.
There have been times this season when Northwestern has looked totally overmatched from a talent standpoint.
And there is only so much that the 46-year old Fitzgerald, a former star linebacker for Northwestern in the 1990s, can do as a head coach.
But to assume that Iowa will prevail on Saturday just because of how poorly Northwestern has played this season still would be foolish and just asking for trouble.
It’s reasonable to think that Iowa will win, but to assume anything against a Pat Fitzgerald-coached team is risky.
Fitzgerald is considered a master motivator, and he seems to save some of his best motivational tactics for the Hawkeyes.
Iowa still has a realistic chance of winning the Big Ten West Division, but a loss on Saturday would severely damage those chances.
Northwestern is desperately trying to hang on to any chance of finishing with a winning record, but with a 3-5 overall record, it’s margin for error is razor thin.
“I don’t want to speak for him, but I think there’s a mutual respect,” Kirk Ferentz said when asked about his relationship with Fitzgerald. “I have a lot of respect for him, and I think it’s mutual and genuine. Pat was a really good football player. I wasn’t here during that, but he’s easy to envision. He took over that program in just what couldn’t be a tougher circumstance. You want to put things in perspective, that puts it all in perspective. He’s just done a great job.”
Ferentz is the dean of Big Ten coaches and the longest tenured head coach in the country, while Fitzgerald is second in the conference in longevity after having been promoted to head coach following Randy Walker’s unexpected death in June 2006.
“That’s a tough circumstance,” Ferentz said. “I’m not saying he wasn’t prepared for it because that’s not the case at all, but until you go through (it). It’s like any new job, first year on the job there’s always a lot of learning going on.
“Outsider looking in, he went there, he lives and breathes that program and has been from my vantage point just a huge asset for the entire university, not just their sports programs or the football program.
Should Northwestern find a way to win on Saturday, Fitzgerald’s reputation for being a Hawkeye slayer would climb to a new level, just because of how poorly his team has played for much of this season.
Should Iowa to fail to sustain a rushing attack against this Northwestern defense, then you have to wonder if Iowa is capable of running against any opponent from the Big Ten with consistency because Northwestern is the bottom of the barrel.
Iowa certainly has issues on offense that proved costly in the last two games.
But Northwestern’s defense might be just what Iowa needs to have a rare breakout performance on offense.
This is a must win for Iowa in its quest to win the Big Ten West Division, and to stay relevant this season.
Northwestern is having one of those down years under Fitzgerald, and his influence on goes so far without a reliable defense and a dependable quarterback.
Even against Iowa.
Prediction: Iowa 28, Northwestern 13
Iowa vs. Northwestern
When: Saturday, 6:10 p.m. CST
Where: Evanston, Illinois
Stadium: Ryan Field (47,130)
TV: Big Ten Network
Radio: Hawkeye Radio Network
Series: Iowa holds a 51-28-3 advantage in the series that began with a 12-6 Iowa win in 1897. The Hawkeyes are 25-16-3 all-time in games played in Evanston.