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Northwestern builds huge cushion on way to victory against Iowa

NU defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt (91) sacks Iowquarterback James Vandenberg. Defensive end Tyler Scott (97) also had sack. | AP

NU defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt (91) sacks Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg. Defensive end Tyler Scott (97) also had a sack. | AP

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Updated: November 29, 2012 6:51AM

Northwestern seemed to figure out how to ensure Iowa wouldn’t spoil homecoming Saturday at Ryan Field with a comeback in the fourth quarter.

Make it moot.

After squandering a 12-point fourth-quarter lead Oct. 20 against Nebraska, the Wildcats opened a 25-point cushion early in the third quarter against the Hawkeyes. But this team has put a new spin on the nickname ‘‘Cardiac Cats,’’ finishing games like struggling Detroit Tigers closer Jose Valverde.

Iowa scored 14 unanswered points, including a touchdown after NU fumbled on first-and-goal, but it failed to convert a fourth-and-three inside the final two minutes as the Wildcats secured a 28-17 victory.

‘‘We are not quite there yet,’’ NU coach Pat Fitzgerald said, ‘‘but it’s great to get a win and obviously a great team win for us.’’

The Wildcats are 7-2 overall and 3-2 in the Big Ten as they head into their bye weekend. As is customary, NU coaches will analyze every aspect of the team.

To hear Fitzgerald tell it, though, the fourth quarters of games won’t be a focal point. The Wildcats’ two losses — against Penn State and Nebraska — featured blown fourth-quarter leads, and they found themselves in an eerily familiar position against the Hawkeyes.

After NU had driven 92 yards to the Iowa 3, center Brandon Vitabile sailed a shotgun snap on first-and-goal over quarterback Kain Colter’s head. Iowa cornerback Micah Hyde recovered with nine minutes left. The Hawkeyes scored on the ensuing drive to cut what once had been a 28-3 deficit to 28-17.

Asked if he had a sideline message for his players and coaches, Fitzgerald said: ‘‘We talked about doing what we do. That’s the big thing. I hate to break it to you, but we don’t look deep into all these things and the psychological aspects and, ‘Oh, my gosh, it’s the same way it was two weeks ago. What are we going to do now? Ahh.’

‘‘You remind the guys to keep doing what we’re doing and trust themselves and trust what we’re asking them to do. I think when you start to overanalyze things is when you get into a problem.’’

What wasn’t a problem Saturday was the play of Colter, who started and finished strong. He had runs of 18 and 20 yards on the Wildcats’ opening drive, which he capped with a five-yard touchdown run, then slashed his way downfield for a 39-yard gain on third-and-five on the final series of the game.

Colter finished with a career-high 166 rushing yards and completed 6 of 9 passes for 80 yards with one touchdown and one interception.

NU also got strong performances from running back Venric Mark (16 carries for 162 yards) and linebacker David Nwabuisi (career-high 18 tackles).

‘‘Give Northwestern credit,’’ Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. ‘‘They outplayed us.’’

After the bye, the Wildcats will play consecutive road games against Michigan and Michigan State before returning to Ryan Field on Nov. 24 to face hapless Illinois.

‘‘There’s no relaxing,’’ Mark said. ‘‘This is a bye week, but . . . we still have to go to Michigan and win that game. So we might take a day off, but we’re going to stay active.’’

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