IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Northwestern's best start in 46 years was met with a fair amount of skepticism because of its weak schedule.
After the way the Wildcats beat Iowa on Saturday, expect many of those doubters to become believers.
C.J. Bacher threw for 284 yards and three touchdowns and the Wildcats (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten) rallied from a 14-point deficit to beat Iowa 22-17 on Saturday, extending their best start since 1962.
Rasheed Ward added a career-high 10 receptions and a touchdown for the Wildcats, who kept Iowa (3-2, 0-1) out of the end zone on four chances inside the Northwestern 10-yard line with less than 2 minutes left.
"We knew today would be a heavyweight fight," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "It wasn't great early, but we made some adjustments at halftime and we came out with the mentality that we went into the game with, which is to keep swinging and keep fighting."
Iowa sophomore quarterback Ricky Stanzi, in the first late-game test of his career, led the Hawkeyes from their own 28 with 4:16 left to Northwestern's 8. Three straight incompletions followed, and Wildcats defensive lineman Quentin Davie knocked Stanzi's fourth-down pass to the turf to seal the victory.
Stanzi finished 21-for-30 for a career-high 238 yards, with one touchdown and one interception. Shonn Greene had a career-high 159 yards rushing to lead Iowa, but was knocked out of the game with a head injury midway through the fourth quarter.
This was Iowa's second consecutive heartbreaker. The Hawkeyes, who lost at Pittsburgh 21-20 last week, committed five turnovers -- including four fumbles.
"Losing is no fun, and opening the door up to help your opponent, we have to get that corrected," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "I see room for optimism. The challenge for us is to play cleaner."
Northwestern took its first lead at 22-17 on a 3-yard touchdown pass from Bacher to Eric Peterman with 7:54 left. Northwestern got the ball back on a Greene fumble and Ward made a one-handed catch on third down to keep the drive alive.
Northwestern can match its best start since 1962 with a win against Michigan State on Oct. 11. The Wildcats first four wins came over Syracuse, Duke, Southern Illinois and Ohio -- not exactly powerhouses -- but beating a conference team on the road has validated that strong start.
"Those first four teams were just kind of like a warmup," Ward said. "It's the Big Ten, teams are going to be a lot better. They're going to come with it through the fourth quarter."
For a while, it looked like the Hawkeyes would have it wrapped up by then.
Iowa jumped ahead 17-3 late in the first half and seemed poised to put the clamps on the Wildcats. But Andy Brodell gave Northwestern life with a costly fumble, and the Wildcats took advantage, pulling within 17-16 on two quick touchdown passes by Bacher.
Iowa's Andy Brodell muffed a punt at the 33, and Bacher hit Ward on a 1-yard TD pass with 17 seconds left in the first half to make it 17-10 at halftime. With momentum back on their side, the Wildcats went 76 yards on just four plays, as Bacher found Peterman for a 15-yard TD with 13:28 left in the third quarter. Kicker Amado Villarreal missed an extra point that would have tied it.
Iowa's Amari Spievey then fumbled on the kickoff, but Villarreal -- who had been perfect through Northwestern's first four games -- missed his second field goal of the game, this one from 34 yards.
"The momentum kind of changed there a little bit," said Brodell, who caught a career-high eight passes for 126 yards. "We had our opportunities. The bottom line is we didn't execute in the second half."
The Hawkeyes opened the scoring on a 30-yard field goal by Trent Mossbrucker. Greene then capped a 90-yard drive with an 18-yard touchdown run to put Iowa up 10-0 early in the second quarter.
After a 37-yard field goal by Villarreal put the Wildcats on the board, Stanzi showed off the touch that helped him win the starting job over junior Jake Christensen. He hit a streaking Brodell for a 45-yard touchdown pass with 2:11 left in the first half, giving the Hawkeyes a 17-3 lead.
Iowa wouldn't score again. But the good news for Stanzi was that Ferentz declared him the starter next week at Michigan State, seemingly settling the quarterback debate for this season.
"We didn't play well enough to win, either side of the ball or special teams," Ferentz said.
Northwestern spent time at No. 1 in The Associated Press poll in 1962, when they started 6-0. Hardly anyone's expecting the Wildcats to get that far any time soon -- but then again, hardly anyone expected them to be 5-0 either.
"Football is all about coming up with big plays," Fitzgerald said. "We made some more tough plays today in the second half, and that's what we need to get the victory."
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