The first game rarely goes the way you draw it up. There are always mistakes. And sometimes even players get hurt.
Thankfully for Iowa, some of those things happened Saturday at Soldier Field against Northern Illinois, but the Hawkeyes still found a way to win with a late rally.
The Hawkeyes got four field goals from Mike Meyer and a game-winning 23-yard TD run from sophomore Damon Bullock with 2:15 on the clock in an 18-17 win over the Huskies.
“We expected this to be a very tough game,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “We played a team that was really well-coached. We certainly knew this was going to be a challenge, and it certainly proved to be. I’m really proud of our effort and the way the guys really hung in there. There were things that were disappointing at times and those are things that are correctable with time, hopefully.”
Those correctable things start with allowing six sacks against senior quarterback James Vandenberg and getting three points inside the red zone instead of seven.
Another area of concern may be the fact that Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch rushed for 119 yards and a score. The good news and bad news is that 73 of those yards came on one play. Lynch only threw for 54 yards in the contest.
The Hawkeyes gained 11 more first downs, 67 more yards and had the ball for 17:30 more minutes than the Huskies.
But when you settle for field goals instead of touchdowns, it can often come back to bite you. Luckily for Iowa, it managed to get a touchdown soon enough to help secure the win.
“It was a play we talked about at halftime based off something that happened in the second quarter,” Ferentz said. “Greg [Davis] pulled it out of his pocket at an opportune moment, obviously. It was a huge play because clearly up until that point our biggest issue was getting into the end zone. We didn’t have much success doing that. I think the other big issue to me was that it seemed like we kept getting into a lot of second and really longs. Not getting yardage on first down, that makes it tough because the next thing you know it’s third and long.”
The touchdown run by Bullock came on third and long. He took the sweep to the outside and virtually strolled to paydirt untouched from 23 yards out.
Iowa was 3-for-4 inside the red zone on the day but all three of those hits were by way of field goal. And each one of them should have been punched in for a touchdown. Meyer made a career-high four field goals.
Bullock was a bright spot in the game offensively for Iowa as he finished with 150 yards on 30 carries. He also caught three passes for 26 yards. Other than that, the offensive production was minimal as the Hawkeyes only finished with 268 total yards.
“We had a tough time,” Ferentz said of the offense. “We had a tough time protecting at times, and we certainly had a tough time getting open. It just didn’t seem like we were in great sync throughout the game. I give them an awful lot of credit. They had a good game-plan. The mixed the pressure up with coverage, and did a good job. They made it very tough on us.”
Northern Illinois came into Saturday’s game with the longest winning streak in the nation at nine games. The Huskies returned eight starters from last year’s defense that help guide Northern Illinois to a 10-3 record.
This loss hurts for now, but for how long will depend on the Northern Illinois coaches not allowing this end result to linger.
“It’s tough when you put that much on the table, when you invest that much, when you play that hard,” Northern Illinois coach Dave Doeren said. “To come away with a loss – it hurts. These guys are resilient; they’re tough kids, well-coached, fun to be around. They’ll bounce back tomorrow and get on track.”
The Iowa defense has young front four but a very experienced back seven. All together, the entire unit played well enough to win Saturday, keeping the Hawkeyes in the game while the offense was getting its feet wet.
The defense allowed just 210 yards and 12 first downs and kept the ball out of their opponents hands for much of the game. The only poor play was allowing Lynch to rumble 73 yards for a rushing touchdown.
The Huskies passed for just 54 yards.
James Morris and Anthony Hitchens each had eight tackles to lead the defense, while Joe Gaglione added six tackles and a sack. Tommy Donatell also had six tackles, and Dominic Alvis had three tackles and one sack. Northern Illinois’ defense was led by Jimmie Ward’s 12 tackles and Tyrone Clark’s 11 tackles.
Iowa improved to 8-0 all time against Northern Illinois and won its opener for the 12th straight season. The Hawkeyes rushed for 134 yards in the game and is now 15-2 when rushing for at least 120.
Iowa will return to the field Saturday for another matchup against instate rival Iowa State, which also began the season with a win yesterday, beating Tulsa, 38-23, at Jack Trice Stadium.
That game will begin at 2:30 p.m. and can be seen on the Big Ten Network.