EVANSTON, Ill. — You can’t always believe what you believe.
You believed Iowa’s defense was pretty, pretty good entering this season. Last week’s NCAA statistics supported that.
The Hawkeyes were sixth nationally in scoring defense, eight in total defense, 14th in pass efficiency defense. Those are good statistics. What they meant, though, may not have been much.
Because three times this year now, Iowa’s opponent has driven 72 yards or more for late, game-winning touchdowns. Saturday, in Iowa’s 21-17 loss to the Northwestern Wildcats here, it was a 91-yard charge.
You believed conditioning was a Hawkeyes asset, that the fourth-quarter was Iowa Time. It sure was last season.
But the Hawkeyes were left dog-tired by ‘Cats quarterback Dan Persa and his crew in the fourth quarter, and looked it.
Some have said Persa resembles the actor who plays Harry Potter in the movies. He’s more like Harry Houdini, the escape-artist of yesteryear. Persa ran the Hawkeyes into the ground. An enduring image is from Saturday is one of Iowa defenders with their hands on their hips during play-stoppages on NU’s hurry-up final possession.
Hands on hips on a field of play means you’re gassed. Key defensive linemen spending plays on the sideline because of fatigue? That’s not good.
I don’t know if Adrian Clayborn is 100 percent healthy or somewhat less than that. It’s mid-November and a lot of players are playing hurt, and no one I know questions Clayborn’s desire and will. But he sure seemed to have stamina issues Saturday.
You believed this was the year Iowa stopped being the Wildcats’ victim, the year it put its throat on purple throats and rode home triumphantly to prepare for a monster showdown with Ohio State in Kinnick Stadium.
Nope. Northwestern doesn’t hate you, Hawkeyes. It owns you.
You believed this Iowa team could win the Big Ten title, could join the 2009 team as one that finished the season in the Top Ten, could be a truly special Hawkeyes squad that would do things matched by just a few of its predecessors in school history.
You believed wrong.
Some 7-3 records after 10 games feel good, feel uplifting. Iowa’s smells like a rotten egg. Great expectations often lead to great voids.
Ricky Stanzi came into Ryan Field ranked third in the nation in passing efficiency. He added to that in the third quarter with two touchdown passes to up his season-total to 22, with just three interceptions.
But Stanzi’s most-remembered pass of this season to date was a horrible long throw here with 10:56 left in the game. It was headed toward nobody but Wildcats, and was picked off by Northwestern safety Brian Peters at the NU 5.
“Just an awful pass, an awful decision,” Stanzi said. “Cost us big-time.”
Iowa led 17-7 at the time, and had moved into Wildcat territory thanks to a sensational 18-yard grab by tight end Allen Reisner. Take that drive to the end zone instead of the turnover column, and it’s game over, bring on the Buckeyes, play for a share of the Big Ten crown.
Persa got it done in the fourth quarter, Stanzi and Iowa’s offense didn’t. Northwestern’s defense got it done in the fourth quarter, Iowa’s didn’t.
Iowa’s final possession was 15 plays long, yet covered only 35 yards. It was balky at best, a drive that definitely won’t be used as how-to footage for coaches wanting to get wise in the ways of running a two-minute offense against a prevent defense.
It was a stark contrast to the efficient way Northwestern moved the ball for its two fourth-quarter scores. You can’t say enough about Persa, directing an 85-yard TD march before the 91-yard possession that put the Wildcats ahead for keeps.
It doesn’t matter now, since he ruptured an Achilles tendon on the last pass he’ll throw this season, the perfect 20-yard scoring strike to Demetius Fields. But someone should really check to see if Persa has eyes in the sides and back of his head.
“Give him the credit,” said Iowa safety Tyler Sash. “He’s a heck of a competitor. I know I’d want that kid on my team if I was picking teams.”
That wasn’t a Persa-over-Stanzi comment, so hold the murmurs. Sash simply said it’s better to have Persa with you than against you. So would NU Coach Pat Fitzgerald, he of the .800 winning percentage (4-1) against Iowa.
“The year that Danny’s had has been absolutely spectacular,” Fitzgerald said. It’s a shame he won’t get to play out the final two regular-season games and Northwestern’s bowl.
It wasn’t just Persa who shined on Saturday, though. The Wildcats, who coughed up double-digit leads in losing to Michigan State and Penn State, were the comeback kids this time.
“Tough football team,” said Iowa defensive tackle Mike Daniels. “They just came out and played. Just came out and played hard. Didn’t give up.
“They came to play every snap. Very, very tough kids over there.”
But where was Iowa at the start of a game for the second-straight week? The Hawkeyes danced cheek-to-cheek with danger at Indiana before slipping away with an 18-13 win. They again looked logey in the first-half here. This time, it bit them.
Where was the zip, the zest at the kickoff of a highly meaningful game? Where was the clearly noticeable recognition that Northwestern is always pumped up for this matchup and you have to counter that with your own sharpness and enthusiasm? Even the most biased of Wildcat fans fully expected Iowa to snort fire here.
Fire? There wasn’t even smoke until the second-half began.
Kirk Ferentz held his shortest postgame press conference of the year. Stanzi and Clayborn had a few terse answers to reporters. Nothing nasty, mind you, just understandably sour reactions to a sour result and team goals that no longer seem attainable.
You can put a lot of salve on these wounds by popping Ohio State, but those two teams’ elevators are going in different directions right now.
Sure, Michigan State and Wisconsin could both still lose a Big Ten game, Iowa could beat the Buckeyes, and the Hawkeyes could finish in a four-way tie for the league title. And maybe more people will eat turkey pastrami than roast turkey on Thanksgiving.
Wisconsin scored 83 points Saturday against an Indiana team that the Hawkeyes labored to beat a week earlier. Say what you will about the Badgers’ sense of sportsmanship, but they certainly don’t lack for a killer instinct.
Meanwhile, preseason Top Ten team Iowa has become a face in the national crowd just two weeks after it decimated Michigan State in Kinnick to raise its profile.
You believed this Ohio State-Iowa event would be a league title-decider. At least you were half-right on that one.