Charboneau: Iowa wins West but has bigger goals

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Iowa was awarded a trophy on Saturday afternoon, but the Hawkeyes have much bigger goals.

And just saying that is stunning.

The Hawkeyes defeated Purdue, and along with Northwestern’s victory over Wisconsin, clinched the Big Ten West Division to earn a spot in the conference championship game in Indianapolis on Dec. 5.

But with a shot at their first 12-0 regular-season mark, the Hawkeyes weren’t worried about hoisting the division championship trophy.

“We’re not downplaying it,” coach Kirk Ferentz said. “It’s a significant accomplishment to have an opportunity to play in Indianapolis. It’s really thrilling for all of us, and we’re really pleased about that.

“But at the same time we’re six days out from playing again, and we’re playing a team (Nebraska) that’s been sitting back all week watching us. We’ve got some ground to make up. We’ll get to work on that in our meetings and what have you, but really proud, and it’s a real significant accomplishment, but we’ve still got to finish this season out, and that’s our goal.”

Iowa visits Nebraska the day after Thanksgiving. A couple of months ago, few thought this game would be big for Iowa. Many believed it might be Nebraska playing to win the division. Iowa was coming off a 7-6 season in 2014 and hadn’t won double-digit games since 2009.

To think the Hawkeyes would be in this positon now is difficult to grasp. Even Ferentz was starting to feel the heat as he entered his 17th season. That 2009 season was well in the past and the folks in Iowa City were growing restless.

“If you’re involved in sports, if you’re involved in anything competitive — if you think every day is going to be a parade, you’re in for a tough life,” Ferentz said. “You’ve got to endure some tough times, and I never thought we were off that far last year, but you know, being off that far sometimes makes a big difference.”

It has created a team that simply knows how to win. Iowa has yet to trail in the fourth quarter this season and it hasn’t trailed in the second half since Big Ten play began.

And they have now matched a school-record of 11 wins from 2002 and 2009.

Adding do that won’t be simple. The Cornhuskers are playing to salvage a season, with a win getting them in a bowl game.

If Iowa gets past Nebraska, the conference title game will be no piece of cake. Right now it looks like Michigan State has the inside track to win the East, but it could also be Ohio State or Michigan if the Spartans falter against Penn State.

After that, the sky’s the limit as Iowa would almost certainly be in the College Football Playoff if it manages to come out of Indy with a win.

“We haven’t been perfect by any stretch, but our record is perfect,” Ferentz said.

Who would have guessed that?

’Cats fight back

It’s been a while since Northwestern got blitzed in two straight games against Michigan and Iowa, but give the Wildcats credit.

They could have thrown in the towel like last season. Instead, they’ve now won four straight after a wild 13-7 victory over Wisconsin on Saturday and sit at 9-2 overall with a chance to match the 10 victories coach Pat Fitzgerald had in 2012.

And it took the play of the defense — one that was so good early but was staggered by the one-sided losses — to pull out the victory as Wisconsin was unable to score from the Northwestern in the final minute.

“To see the way our defense rose up and got the stop on fourth down — we did it all the way to the last play,” Fitzgerald said.

It was Northwestern’s first win at Wisconsin since 2000 and running back Justin Jackson was good again, gaining 139 yards and scoring a touchdown.

The finish was wild and the referees were center stage once again, to the detriment of the Badgers.

Jazz Peavy hauled in what appeared to be a touchdown catch on first-and-goal from the 1 on the final drive, but it was ruled incomplete after a review. On the previous play, Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave hit tight end Troy Fumagalli on a pass inside the 5 and Fumagalli looked as if he rolled into the end zone for a score. A review showed Fumagalli’s knee was down at the 1.

In the third quarter, Alex Erickson’s 78-yard punt return for a touchdown that could have given the Badgers the lead was negated after officials ruled Erickson had called for a fair catch.

But Wisconsin turned the ball over five times and gave up five sacks as the Northwestern defense was out to prove it was better than it showed during the two-game slide in October.

“We just wanted to prove to Wisconsin, the rest of the nation and the Big Ten that we were a great defense,” said defensive lineman Deonte Gibson, who had three sacks, “and I think we got that done today.”