EVANSTON, Ill. — The Big Ten West Division trophy will again go to Wisconsin unless Iowa quickly figures out how to keep its offensive bread and butter from becoming toast.
The Hawkeyes, who consider running the ball as vital as breathing, struggled again Saturday to muster up an effective ground game, and it cost them in a 17-10 overtime loss to Northwestern.
The rushing total: 89 yards in 33 carries, a 2.7-yard average. That won’t help the uncharacteristically low rankings of ninth in the Big Ten and 90th nationally going into the game.
“We’re a better football team when we can run the ball efficiently,” U of I coach Kirk Ferentz said. “It’s always been that way. That’s our plan, and it will continue to be our plan.”
But the plan hasn’t worked for Iowa (4-3, 1-3) since Big Ten play began.
Penn State nipped the Hawkeyes 21-19, holding them to 82 yards rushing. Michigan State hung on to a 17-10 win by holding them to 19 yards on the ground. Similar results Saturday led to another defeat.
Iowa tailback Akrum Wadley broke off a 22-yard run six minutes into the game. The Hawkeyes’ longest run after that was 9 yards, and that was on the final drive of regulation.
Iowa’s lone touchdown came late in the second quarter on a hurry-up drive of four pass completions, which started with a 61-yard bomb from quarterback Nate Stanley to split end Matt Vandeberg and ended with a 7-yarder to sophomore tight end Noah Fant out of Omaha South.
In overtime, after Northwestern scored first on Clayton Thorson’s 1-yard quarterback sneak, Iowa faced a fourth-and-3 at the 18.
Instead of trying to run, the Hawkeyes called the same short pass play Fant scored on earlier. Just like the first time, he easily got into the clear with plenty of yards for a first down. This time, though, Fant dropped the pass, setting off a Northwestern field storming.
To his credit, he showed up afterward to discuss the final play.
“I have to bring that in,” Fant, his eyes reddened, said with a steady voice while looking at each questioner. “That was one of the deciding factors in that game. I can’t take my eyes off the ball.”
When the play was called, Fant said, he expected to be wide-open like on the touchdown.
“It’s crazy how that works,” he said. “One play can be a touchdown. Another one can be a dropped pass for the game. I framed up the ball. I started looking into the defense to see where I could get a crease. I didn’t focus on the ball, and dropped it.”
Ferentz said Fant bears no more blame for the loss than anyone else in black and gold.
“He’s done a lot of really good things for us,” the coach said. “That was kind of illustrative of our team — we’re not quite there yet. And when you’re not quite there, you come up short.
“There’s nobody more disappointed than him. We didn’t lose the game on that. There were a lot of plays to go back and look at.”
Iowa’s offensive struggles — only 74 total yards in the second half and overtime — weren’t fair to a defense that sparkled most of the day while playing short-handed.
All-Big Ten linebacker Josey Jewell (shoulder) and senior free safety Brandon Snyder (sprained knee ligament) sat out after being injured two weeks ago against Illinois. Ferentz said Jewell could return soon, but was noncommittal about Snyder.
Even down two stalwarts, the Hawkeyes held Northwestern — coming off a 37-point effort in a win over Maryland — scoreless until midway through the third quarter.
When it looked like the Wildcats might grind out another touchdown early in the fourth quarter to go up 14-7, Iowa defensive tackle Nathan Bazata stopped that notion. The senior from Howells, Nebraska, sacked Thorson for a 4-yard loss on third-and-4 at the 9, forcing a field goal.
Bazata’s sack came out of a new defensive wrinkle from coordinator Phil Parker in which all the linemen stood up prior to the snap.
“It’s any way we can find new ways to get pressure on the quarterback,” Bazata said. “He threw that on us today, and we executed it.”
Holding Northwestern to a field goal there allowed Iowa to get the game into overtime.
The Hawkeyes were driving for what would have been a go-ahead touchdown. But inside two minutes, Wadley was stopped for no gain on third-and-1 at the 26. Iowa lined up to go for it on fourth down, but a false-start penalty led to Miguel Recinos kicking a 48-yard field goal to tie it at 10-all with 1:30 left.
A failed running play when only 1 yard was needed, and a penalty at a critical juncture — symbols of why Iowa has almost lost sight of Wisconsin in the Big Ten West with five games to go.
“We’re frustrated,” Bazata said. “We know we can play better. Look at our three losses, and we didn’t finish. We were a series away or a play away. We need to go back to work and learn how to finish.