IOWA CITY — If you want to send the Northwestern football program mail, address it to the heads of the Iowa Hawkeyes.
That’s where the Wildcats reside this week, complete with a maniacal image of Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald.
“Definitely personal, and definitely this team,” senior cornerback Shaun Prater said Tuesday. “They’ve beaten me my whole career, dating back to 2008 my freshman year. So hopefully, we can get the ‘W’ this year and I can end my career saying we beat Northwestern.”
Yes, the Wildcats (2-3, 0-2 Big Ten) have leased a nice brownstone walk-up in the helmets of the Hawkeyes (3-2, 0-1). It has wood floors, a nice roof-top view of the city and five wins in the last six seasons, including the last three games.
Since 2008, Iowa is 20-4 at Kinnick Stadium. That includes 0-for-2 against Northwestern.
“Last three years, it’s been the same questions,” senior defensive end Broderick Binns said. “What have we done to come out and play better? And then we still lose.
“It’s definitely a key game. We need that first Big Ten win. We need to defend Kinnick. We need to get that monkey off our back.”
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz takes the plain view on the Wildcats, who hold a 9-5 record against the Hawkeyes since 1995, when NU coach Pat Fitzgerald was still a Wildcats linebacker leading them to the Rose Bowl.
“For me it’s pretty simple,” Ferentz said. “They’ve played better all three games. That’s kind of where it’s at. You can slice it, dice it. Injuries, that’s part of the game. But their quarterback [Mike Kafka] was hurt in 2009, as well.
“At the end of the day, they played better in all three of those games and they won. Our objective this week is to play better than them.”
Is it really that simple? Yeah, it is. Kind of.
Look no further than turnovers.
In the last three meetings, Iowa has turned the ball over 10 times to just three for Northwestern. You have to wonder how the Hawkeyes kept it to 22-17 in 2008 after they coughed up four fumbles and threw an interception for a minus-5 in turnover margin.
When Iowa lost quarterback Ricky Stanzi in ’09, it had a 10-0 lead. The play he went out on was a sack-fumble that Northwestern recovered for a TD in Iowa’s end zone. Iowa finished the game 4-1 in turnovers. Last season, it was 1-1, but the Stanzi interception in the fourth quarter opened the door to another Northwestern comeback.
“All these games have come down to winning the turnover ratio and making plays in the second half,” Fitzgerald said. “. . . Every game I’ve been a part of in this series have been close at halftime, they’ve gone to the fourth quarter and I think most of them have been decided by one score or less.”
Yes, yes and yes, at least in the last three years.
You often hear the term “finish” in football, whether it’s a play, result or getting an acceptable shine on a helmet. In Iowa-Northwestern the last three games, here’s what finish has meant: Northwestern 23, Iowa 0.
That’s the collective fourth-quarter score the last three seasons. Iowa has led going into the fourth quarter in two of those, including 17-7 at Northwestern last year, but it hasn’t “finished” the job. There, that’s as clear of an example as you’re going to get on what “finish” in football means.
Last season, Persa led Northwestern on 85- and 91-yard scoring drives for a 14-0 fourth. The ’09 fourth quarter was less dramatic, but the field goal Persa led the Cats to was essentially the clincher in a 17-10 win. In ’08, Northwestern cashed in a fumble for a fourth-quarter TD, and the Hawkeyes failed on four attempts from NU’s 8.
Another fourth-quarter stat that shows how strongly Northwestern has finished the last three seasons against Iowa is third- and fourth-down conversions. The Cats have made 8 of 13 third and fourth downs (62 percent); Iowa is just 8 of 21 (38 percent).
“What’s done is done,” Fitzgerald said. “I think we’ve been fortunate, we’ve won the turnover issue and made some plays in the second half, found a way to win.”
Those are stat factors that show certain trends over the last three seasons. Now, this next theory bends more to the abstract, but maybe there’s something to it. Maybe.
Is this game about Fitzgerald’s collegial enthusiasm vs. Ferentz’s NFL stoicism? Yes, that’s an abstract. Neither man executes a play in this thing and their vibes, collegial or stoic, are translated by the eye of the beholder.
This happened on Northwestern’s bench last season when Iowa scored its second third-quarter TD to take a 17-7 lead at Ryan Field: Middle linebacker Nate Williams squirted water at his defensive teammates on the sidelines. He said he needed to lighten the mood. According to safety Brian Peters, it worked.
“I was squirted, yes,” Peters said. “It was just all of us having fun, and playing together and having fun playing a game. Not making it a job, which it can be sometimes because the season can become a grind.”
You could argue that no other Big Ten coach is welded to his program as Fitzgerald is. He was an all-American linebacker when the Cats broke through to the Rose Bowl in 1995. He began his coaching career at NU as secondary coach in 2001. Sports Illustrated named him one of the nation’s top recruiters in 2005.
Notre Dame sniffed around before hiring Brian Kelly in ’08. This offseason, Fitzgerald signed a 10-year contract extension.
“You respect the guy because he was the two-time defensive player of the year,” Peters said. “You know where he comes from; he’s not too far removed from the game to relate to you.
“He knows how to push your buttons and get you going. It’s just how he’s wired. He’s intense, he’s enthusiastic, I’m sure you see that from a media standpoint, but we see it even more as players. He knows when to get in our faces, he knows when to push us and then when to put you under his arms.
“He’s just a great coach. His intensity and enthusiasm just take you to another level.”
Suddenly, it doesn’t seem like such an abstract thought.