IOWA CITY, Iowa — Northwestern finally found some points. Then the defense made a big play to secure a much-needed win.
Justin Jackson ran for 171 yards and Austin Carr caught three touchdown passes as Northwestern held on to beat Iowa 38-31 on Saturday.
Trae Williams’ interception in the final minute sealed the win for the Wildcats (2-3, 1-1 Big Ten), who scored touchdowns on three straight drives in the second half after Iowa ran off 17 straight points to take the lead.
“For us to weather that storm and then not to flinch after they went on a 17-0 run, I thought showed some maturity from this group and then to get the finish was critically important,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We’ve got to squeeze everything out of this group. I think they’re coming along for us.”
C.J. Beathard threw for 204 yards and a touchdown for Iowa (3-2, 1-1), which snapped its nine-game regular-season Big Ten winning streak.
The Wildcats — ranked as the worst scoring offense in the Big Ten and 125th out of 128 FBS teams coming into Saturday — exploded for nearly as many points against Iowa as they scored in the last three games combined.
Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson threw for 164 yards. Carr — his favorite target and the Big Ten’s receptions leader — has caught a touchdown pass in four straight games. He’s the first Wildcat player to do that since 2000.
Jackson became the fourth player in Northwestern history to reach 3,000 career yards. The junior’s 58-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter regained the lead for the Wildcats.
Defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo had four of Northwestern’s six sacks.
The Hawkeyes had two chances to tie the game in the final seven minutes, but were forced to punt and then Williams intercepted Beathard at Northwestern’s 36-yard line.
Iowa’s mistakes — pass protection and penalties — were costly. The Hawkeyes had 70 penalty yards, including consecutive personal fouls on Northwestern’s last scoring drive.
“We’re not good enough to give up 15 yards, whether it’s a sack, a penalty,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “We’re just not good enough, and not many teams are.”
Iowa’s LeShun Daniels Jr. and Akrum Wadley combined for 107 rushing yards and three touchdowns. Wadley has seven touchdowns in three games against Northwestern.
NORTHWESTERN: The 38-point outburst is what Fitzgerald needed to see after the Wildcats totaled just 65 points in their first four games. Northwestern took advantage of good field position early. It had three scoring drives of 75-plus yards in the second half.
The key was limiting mistakes. Fitzgerald pointed to holding penalties and turnovers as reasons why the offense has sputtered. The Wildcats had one fumble and only one penalty against Iowa.
“The offense has been there, but I just think we’ve had self-inflicted wounds,” Fitzgerald said.
IOWA: Beathard didn’t have time to find targets in his first game without top receiver Matt VandeBerg, who broke his foot this week in practice. Beathard was sacked six times and had to scramble to throw most of the game.
Senior Riley McCarron had career-highs with eight catches and 78 yards. He could emerge as Beathard’s top target.
Northwestern’s Brett Walsh was carted off the field during a scary moment in the third quarter, but officials said tests came back negative. Walsh is expected to travel back to Evanston, Illinois, on Saturday night.
Walsh, a junior linebacker, was hurt covering a kickoff. The game was delayed almost 10 minutes while medical personnel attended to Walsh. He was put on a stretcher and carted off to the locker room.
Northwestern had lost four of the previous five games in the series. The Wildcats won in Kinnick Stadium for the first time since 2009. .Iowa linebacker Josey Jewell had a career-high 16 tackles. Jewell has had double-digit tackles in three straight games. .Iowa kicker Keith Duncan hit a career-long 24-yard field goal.
NORTHWESTERN: The Wildcats have a bye next week before visiting No. 17 Michigan State on Oct. 15.
IOWA: The Hawkeyes travel to Minnesota with hopes of holding onto the “Floyd of Rosedale” trophy. Iowa got whipped 52-14 in its last trip to Minnesota two years ago.