IOWA CITY — Kain Colter swallows hard when he’s asked about season goals. It’s natural considering where Northwestern stood just four weeks ago compared to where it is today.
The Wildcats, considered a Big Ten title contender earlier this month, have lost three straight games to match its 2012 total. Those title hopes have faded and the disappointment is evident for a program that was just 5 minutes, 3 seconds from an unbeaten 2012 season.
But nearly two-thirds through the 2013 season, there’s more at stake for his team than trophies, Colter said. It’s about playing football at its root level.
“It’s about pride,” said Colter, Northwestern’s all-purpose quarterback. “It’s not about whether you’re playing on a big stage or you’re playing in the backyard. It’s about winning and getting our competitive edge back. We’re not worried about the Big Ten championship right now. We’re not worried about anything. We’re worried about winning, whoever we’re going up against that week. If we do that, everything else takes care of itself.”
This week, the Wildcats tackles Iowa, which owned Northwestern 21 straight from 1974 through 1994. Northwestern resurged with wins in 1995 and 1996 and since has turned the series into a rivalry. From 2008-2010, Iowa had double-digit leads only to suffer gut-wrenching losses. In 2009, Northwestern gave the Hawkeyes their first defeat after a 9-0 start. In 2010, Iowa led 17-7 in the fourth quarter before faltering late.
It’s pure Schadenfreude for Northwestern, which also popped the Hawkeyes 28-17 last year. Those Iowa poundings a generation ago live vicariously through players like Colter, who dusted Iowa in 2012 for 166 rushing yards, 80 passing yards and four combined scores.
“We’re trying to make it competitive,” Colter said. “We finally got sick of it, and we’re trying to get these wins back for the alumni that weren’t able to beat these guys for (21) years.
“(Coach Pat Fitzgerald) doesn’t have any specific stories that he can tell. It’s about having pride in your school and things like that. Obviously this rivalry is definitely meaningful, not just for him, but for the program. It’s all a part of playing a team that you hadn’t beaten in (21) years, and now we’re back on track. We’ve been pretty successful over the last — I don’t know how many match-ups we’ve had — just trying to get back on track. It is a big game.”
Iowa ranks second to Illinois on Northwestern’s rivalry chart, Colter said. Northwestern has won 10 of last 16 matchups, swiping six of the last eight and four of the last five. Even home-field advantage is elusive for Iowa, losing three of the last four at Kinnick Stadium.
Colter is a primary reason for Northwestern’s recent success. Even in Iowa’s only series victory since 2007 — a 41-31 triumph in 2011 — Colter tied Iowa’s stomachs in knots. He rushed 12 times for 76 yards, caught six passes for 71 yards and completed three of five passes for 48 yards and a touchdown.
“I don’t even know how I can explain how athletic he is,” Iowa defensive tackle Carl Davis said. “This guy, he can play quarterback and then line up as a slot receiver. There’s so many things, you have to be aware of him all over the field. He can be anywhere. I won’t be surprised if he’s lines up over the guard at me.
“He’s somebody you have to account for. You have to have your eyes on his at all times.”
Colter now hobbles on a sprained ankle and Fitzgerald lists “our great quarterback” as day-to-day. Colter missed Northwestern’s game Saturday against Minnesota, a 20-17 loss, but returned to practice Tuesday morning. Colter admits he and the Wildcats are frustrated but focus on the task at hand rather than the big picture. That’s Iowa.
“That’s a team we always look forward to playing, but every team in the Big Ten is going to be a tough challenge,” he said. “For us, if we get this one and get back on track, then hopefully it will springboard to the rest of the season and hopefully a winning streak. We’re just trying to get back on track.”