Saturday November 7th, 2009

Iowa had overcome seemingly every manner of adversity en route to its 9-0 start -- last-second deficits, four-interception quarters, season-ending injuries to two running backs -- but Saturday against Northwestern, the Hawkeyes finally suffered a setback they couldn't overcome: Losing their starting quarterback.

Corey Wotton's fumble-inducing sack of Ricky Stanzi in the Hawkeyes' end zone early in the second quarter of Northwestern's 17-10 upset of the BCS's fourth-ranked team completely changed the scope of the game and, ultimately, Iowa's season. Marshall Thomas recovered the fumble for a Wildcats touchdown -- and Stanzi stayed on the ground, eventually limping off with an ankle injury that would leave him on crutches the rest of the day.

Prior to that play, the Hawkeyes led 10-0 thanks in part to a 74-yard Stanzi touchdown pass on the third play of the game. With the Wildcats' own quarterback, Mike Kafka, slowed by a hamstring injury (he wound up leaving for several series), and Iowa's defense largely stifling the Wildcats' offense, it looked like the Hawkeyes might finally enjoy a comfortable victory.

Then Stanzi went down, and Iowa's BCS championship hopes -- and possibly even its Rose Bowl hopes -- gradually went down with him.

With little-used redshirt freshman James Vandenberg pressed into action, the Hawkeyes, after scoring 10 points and gaining 118 yards on their first two possessions, went scoreless with just 162 yards the rest of the way. Vandenberg went 9-of-27 for 81 yards. His very first pass attempt was intercepted by Northwestern's Quentin Davie, setting up short a field for the Wildcats' first and only touchdown drive. Iowa never came close to scoring again.

The oft-criticized Stanzi committed a combined seven turnovers over the past two weeks, but he was the unquestioned leader of Iowa's offense. His game-winning touchdown pass against Michigan State averted one scare, and his fourth-quarter eruption last week against Indiana helped Iowa survive another. His injury transformed what looked like a possible yawner early into one of the biggest upsets of the 2009 season.

By knocking off Iowa for the second straight season and fourth time in the past five years, Northwestern (6-4) -- whose lone previous conference wins required enormous comebacks against Purdue and Indiana -- assured itself a second straight bowl berth for the first time since its back-to-back Big Ten title seasons in 1995 and '96. It's a huge victory for fourth-year coach Pat Fitzgerald.

Iowa (9-1), on the other hand, is suddenly in danger of seeing its storybook season end in nightmarish fashion. The Hawkeyes travel to No. 15 Ohio State next week. If Stanzi can't play, it's tough to imagine Iowa beating the Buckeyes. And a second Iowa loss would almost certainly send the winner of Saturday's Buckeyes-Penn State game to Pasadena.

The Hawkeyes have overcome no shortage of hurdles so far. They may be about to face their biggest one yet.

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