The Northwestern football team’s final two homes games of the season were just one week apart, but it was as if two entirely different teams took the field from one week to the next. In the first game, on Nov. 13, Northwestern stormed from behind with two late touchdowns to stun then-13th-ranked Iowa, 21-17, at Ryan Field. The second game, a “home game” though it was played at Wrigley Field, saw Northwestern’s defense collapse in a, 48-27, loss to Illinois – a team that just one week earlier gave Minnesota its only conference win.
NU v Iowa
Nov. 13 was Senior Day at Ryan Field, though a freshman played a key if unheralded role in the outcome. The game started promisingly enough, with Northwestern marching down the field and scoring on its first drive for a 7-0 lead. The defense held Iowa in check for most of the first half and led at the break 7-3.
Iowa scored on its first two possessions of the second half, however, and suddenly things did not look so good for the ‘Cats. But a key interception by Brian Peters brought the Wildcats back to life. Starting at their own 15 yard line with just under 11 minutes left in the contest, quarterback Dan Persa led Northwestern down the field inside the Iowa ten yard line.
On first and goal, Persa dropped back to pass. Iowa brought an all-out blitz, but freshman running back Adonis Smith stepped up and delivered the key block, allowing Persa to find his favorite target, Jeremy Ebert, in the end zone. Northwestern trailed by only 3 points, 17-14.
Northwestern’s defense held Iowa to one first down, but the resulting punt pinned the ‘Cats back inside their own 10 yard line. It did not matter. Persa led the team quickly down the field, and with less than 1:30 remaining, he connected with wideout Demetrius Fields on a 20-yard touchdown pass to give Northwestern the lead.
Tragically, when Persa started to run toward Fields to celebrate, he collapsed onto the field in obvious pain. His Achilles tendon had snapped, and his season was over.
With Northwestern up by 4, Iowa needed a touchdown to win. They did not get it, and the Northwestern student body stormed the field. At first reluctant and tentative, the celebration eventually reached a respectable level.
A sellout crowd of 47,130 saw the game. Many were Iowa fans, but at least half appeared to be dressed in purple. The sellout brought the total season attendance to 177,638, a total that topped last year’s attendance by 8,306, despite the fact that the team played two more games at Ryan Field in 2009.
NU v Illinois
One reason for two fewer games was the Wrigleyville Classic against Illinois, billed as a sort of “Illinois Bowl,” Northwestern Coach Pat Fitzgerald said. The atmosphere in and around Wrigley Field was highly charged, with national attention focused on the game and its unusual rules.
Because of the proximity of the Cubs’ outfield wall to the back of the east end zone, the Big Ten conference decided that both teams would head west. After each punt, the teams switched sides and drove in the same direction as their opponent. Unfortunately for Northwestern, Illinois only punted twice the entire game.
The same Illinois defense that held Iowa to just 101 yards on the ground gave up a staggering 519 yards rushing to Illinois. Running back Mikel Lashoure set an Illinois school record with 330 yards rushing and 2 touchdowns. Teammate Jason Ford added 86 yards and 3 touchdowns. Coach Fitzgerald said after the game that he was disappointed in his team, and “we have to decide which team we want to be.”
On offense, freshman quarterback Evan Watkins understandably struggled in his first start in the place of the injured Persa. The running game looked good at times, but it could not keep up with Illinois.
Nevertheless, despite their being dominated in the running game, a costly error kept Northwestern in the game. Illinois ran the ball on its first 10 offensive plays, scoring twice and leading 14-0. On its 11th play, Illinois tried a trick play in which it tossed the ball back to a wide receiver who then set up to pass. The result: an interception and a run back into the dormant east end zone for a touchdown. Northwestern was right back in the game.
They managed to stay there for a little while but simply could not stop the Illinois rushing attack. With Persa, perhaps the team could have kept on scoring and managed to prevail in a high-scoring shootout. Without Persa, the offense was too limited. And the defense, as Coach Fitzgerald said, did not do its job.
The sellout crowd seemed to love seeing football in Wrigley, despite the odd rules. In keeping with a Wrigley Field tradition, the outcome of the game did not seem to matter all that much to most of the crowd. Simply being in Wrigley in November watching football seemed to be enough.
Northwestern dropped to 7-4 — 3-4 in the Big Ten. One game remains against the top-10 Wisconsin Badgers, and then the Wildcats will await an invitation to a post-season bowl game.