IOWA CITY — As frustrated Iowa football players fielded questions following a third straight loss, sounds of a celebration in the neighboring Northwestern locker room sliced through the silence in the underbelly of Kinnick Stadium.
"That shouldn’t happen in our house. That’s not good at all," cornerback Michael Ojemudia said shortly after the Wildcats clinched the West Division spot in the Big Ten Championship Game with a 14-10 victory Saturday over the Hawkeyes.
Losses by Wisconsin at Penn State and Purdue at Minnesota positioned Northwestern for a chance to clinch the division title if they could find a way to win the defensive struggle against Iowa.
The Wildcats took an unlikely path to victory.
Northwestern put the ball in the hands of freshman Isaiah Bowser, and in the second start of his career, he provided a Wildcats’ ground game, which entered averaging 93 rushing yards, with more than a spark.
Bowser ran for a career-high 165 yards on 31 carries including a 34-yard touchdown run in the third quarter that erased the 3-0 lead Iowa had taken in the final minute of the opening half on a 46-yard field goal by Miguel Recinos.
"The way we were able to find a way to get the run game going, it gave us those tough, gritty yards that helped us beat a very good football team in this type of environment," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "… This was a Big Ten brawl."
Both teams struggled to get anything going, combining for 14 punts and each missing a field goal that would have provided hard-to-come-by points.
The Wildcats’ miss came early in the fourth quarter when Jake Collins’ 38-yard try came up short.
Following a three-and-out by an Iowa offense that rushed for a season-low 64 yards, Northwestern didn’t come up short on their possession.
After Chad Hanaoka busted loose for a 13-yard gain on a third-and-9 play to the Iowa 32-yard line, senior quarterback Clayton Thorson found Bennett Skowronek open in the end zone for the game-winning score.
"It came down to making a play," Skowronek said. "That play isn’t really designed to go to me, but coach always says run every single route to get the ball. Clayton threw a great ball and gave me a chance to make a play."
The deciding score came with 9 minutes, 27 seconds left in the game, giving Iowa plenty of time to answer, but the Hawkeyes dropped any chance they had for a come-from-behind win — literally.
Nate Stanley threw three incompletions and Iowa punted on the possession that followed Skowronek’s score before fumbles ended the Hawkeyes’ final two drives of the game.
The Wildcats’ Travis Whillock recovered a Mekhi Sargent fumble with 4:26 remaining, and Cameron Ruiz fell on a fumble by Ivory Kelly-Martin to put the ball back in Northwestern hands for good with 2:41 remaining.
"We just didn’t finish. We had a good week of preparation, we came out ready to go, but it didn’t carry over to the game," Stanley said. "We had some opportunities, but we didn’t make the most of them."
Stanley completed 27-of-41 passes for 269 yards, but the inability of Iowa to get anything going on the ground — Sargent was the Hawkeyes’ leading rusher with 27 yards on 10 carries — prevented the offense from getting much traction.
Iowa’s lone touchdown came on a 28-yard pass from Stanley to Smith-Marsette that gave the Hawkeyes a 10-7 advantage with 4:27 remaining in the third quarter.
"Coach Brian Ferentz dialed it up, and we executed it," Smith-Marsette said. "The line gave Nate a great pocket, I executed my route, and Nate gave me a great ball in the back of the end zone."
That was really the only opportunity the Hawkeyes (6-4, 3-4 Big Ten) produced in a punt-filled game that saw good field position become a rare commodity as Iowa was successful on only 3-of-13 third down conversions.
"We never really got in a rhythm outside of the one big play to Smith-Marsette," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "We never got in a rhythm at all. Offensively, we didn’t hit many big plays. It was one of those games where our inefficiency on third down and their ability to run the ball was probably the biggest thing."
Iowa’s defense didn’t allow Northwestern to convert on any of its six third-down tries in the first half, but the Wildcats (6-4, 6-1) did move the chains seven times on 13 third-down plays over the final two quarters.
"They made the plays they needed to make, and that’s why they won the game. They had some good plays schemed up against our defense and hit us for some big yards here and there," free safety Jake Gervase said.
"It was another tough loss. We are on a rough stretch here the past three weeks, but I think this is a tough team. This loss will sting a little bit, but we'll keep our heads up, move on keep trying to improve and finish the season strong."