It got interesting in the end because with Northwestern, it always does, but the Wildcats avoided another fourth-quarter collapse and found their identity in the process.
"That's the problem that we're facing, we don't have an identity," Colter told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "We really need to develop that with the play calling and find out what we're going to do. Once we finally establish that identity, I feel like teams are going to have to start game-planning to stop us, rather than us trying to game plan and change things and do that for them."
Opponents can start game-planning for the Wildcats now. It goes like this: stop Kain Colter.
Iowa had no answers for the Northwestern junior quarterback, who repeatedly gashed the Hawkeyes throughout Saturday's 28-17 victory at Ryan Field. Colter had 26 rushes for 166 yards and three touchdowns, including a 39-yard dash on third-and-5 to seal the win. He also completed 6 of 9 passes for 80 yards, including a 47-yard scoring strike to Christian Jones in the third quarter.
Colter helped Northwestern hold on after building a 28-3 lead.
Northwestern's quarterback rotation had stalled the previous three weeks, as sophomore Trevor Siemian struggled, Colter received surprisingly few snaps, three-and-outs spiked and time of possession plummeted. With Colter at quarterback Saturday, Northwestern (7-2, 3-2 Big Ten) converted 8-of-11 third-down attempts, went three-and-out only once and racked up 20 first downs and 433 yards against an Iowa defense that, until recently, had been very solid.
Siemian likely will be a good Big Ten quarterback some day, but Northwestern's identity on offense is all about Colter, the option game with running back Venric Mark and converting red zone chances into touchdowns. If not for a bad snap inside the Iowa 5-yard line early in the fourth quarter, Northwestern likely would have put this game away long before it did. Mark had another big day, rushing for 162 yards on 16 carries. His 72-yard run from the Northwestern 1-yard line put him past the 1,000-yard mark for the season -- Northwestern's first back to reach that milestone since Tyrell Sutton in 2006.
You have to wonder what Northwestern's record would be if it had stuck with Saturday's offensive approach against both Penn State and Nebraska, teams that erased double-digit fourth-quarter deficits against the Wildcats.
Iowa (4-4, 2-2) had its chances after the bad snap, but the Hawkeyes simply don't have the offensive firepower, imagination or execution to erase big deficits. Watching Iowa try to run the two-minute drill was painful, as the Hawkeyes couldn't attack downfield against a Northwestern defense missing two of its three best cornerbacks. First-year coordinator Greg Davis has had a very rough go this fall.
Senior quarterback James Vandenberg undoubtedly will receive more criticism from Iowa fans, some of which is merited. Although Vandenberg completed eight of his first nine pass attempts and 11 of 16 in the first half, he couldn't hit the big play, took three sacks and, most disappointing, had three delay of game penalties, including one in the closing minutes with Iowa driving deep in Northwestern territory. You just can't have that from a fifth-year senior. In Vandenberg's defense, he once again got no help from his drops-prone receivers.
The Hawkeyes received a nice boost from Damon Bullock, who returned from a concussion to grind out 107 rush yards on 22 carries. Iowa needed Bullock after Mark Weisman left the game with a hip injury.
Iowa hit a low point against Central Michigan in Week 4, rallied back the next two weeks, but has now been thoroughly outplayed in back-to-back weeks. The Hawkeyes' season could come down to next week's game at Indiana.
Northwestern, meanwhile, is still alive in the Legends Division race, and enters a much-needed off week before trips to both Michigan and Michigan State. After nine weeks, Northwestern finally knows what it is on offense.