The Wildcats proved in their last two games that they couldn't hold a lead. On Saturday night against Iowa, they proved they couldn't quite come from behind, either.
Despite dominating several statistical categories and erasing a 17-point deficit, Northwestern couldn't overcome two costly turnovers and key mistakes in the secondary and droppped a 41-31 decision to Iowa.
It was the Wildcats' fourth straight loss and left them 0-3 in the Big Ten for the first time since 2006.
The turnovers led directly to 10 Iowa points, which, not coincidentally, turned out to be the final margin. And the secondary miscues resulted in two easy Iowa touchdown passes that were eerily reminiscent of the long bombs that led to losses against Illinois and Michigan over the last two weeks.
The Wildcats' offense dominated most of the game, racking up 495 yards and 29 first downs. Northwestern converted an obscene 16-of-22 third downs and held onto the ball for a clock-draining 38 minutes and 23 seconds.
The offensive firepower allowed the Wildcats to overcome a 17-0 Iowa lead to tie the game at 17 in the third quarter. But, as is becoming the trend with these 2011 Wildcats, they once again could not make the plays to win it in the fourth.
The first turnover came on an uncharacteristic Dan Persa pick-six in the first quarter. Trailing 3-0, Northwestern had a first down at the Iowa 7-yard line when Persa, under heavy pressure and getting tackled, made an ill-advised pass that was intercepted by Tanner Miller at the 2. Miller raced 98 yards down the sideline for the touchdown to give Iowa a 10-0 lead.
The Wildcats, though, found their mojo shortly thereafter. Persa hit Jeremy Ebert, who wound up with a career-high 13 catches for 107 yards, to cut the lead to 17-7 with 3:54 left in the half.
Then, in the third, Persa completed five straight passes and Adonis Smith capped a 68-yard drive with a four-yard touchdown run to make it 17-14. After an Iowa three-and-out, the Wildcats tied the game at 17 on a career-long 47-yard field goal by Jeff Budzien with 4:19 left in the quarter.
At that point, with Northwestern converting better than three-quarters of its third downs and holding a 2-to-1 advantage in time of possession, it looked like the Wildcats might mount another one of their patented comeback wins against the Hawkeyes. The Wildcats came into the game having won five of the last six against Iowa, including three in a row at Kinnick Stadium.
But that's when Iowa's ground game regained control. Marcus Coker ran the ball on nine of the 11 plays on the drive and scored on a one-yard run to give the Hawkeyes a 24-17 lead.
Northwestern drove to the Iowa 23 on its next possession, but an option play went awry on third down and Kain Colter fumbled an errant pitch out of bounds for a six-yard loss. The lost yardage could have been the difference in a Budzien 47-yard field goal attempt that went wide right.
Iowa got the ball back and another missed assignment in the Northwestern secondary led to an Iowa touchdown. This time, it was Marvin McNutt running free, and after Vandenberg hit him with a 35-yard scoring strike, Iowa had a two-touchdown lead.
The final nail came on the second play of the Wildcats' next drive, when Persa fumbled after getting sacked by Broderick Binns. Steve Bigach recovered at the Northwestern 20, and Iowa's Mike Meyer kicked a 40-yard field goal shortly thereafter to extend Iowa's lead to 34-17.
Persa left the game during the next series, after getting hurried on a throw. Colter, who led Northwestern with 76 yards rushing and added 71 yards receiving and 44 passing, came in to throw a 19-yard TD pass to Drake Dunsmore to cut the lead to 34-24, but NU's ensuing onside kick was fielded by McNutt, who ran it to the NU 24 to set up Iowa's final touchdown, another one-yard run by Coker.