IOWA CITY –
Hayden Fry Day had a happy ending Saturday night, but it took patience, perseverance and an apology from Kirk Ferentz to pull it off.
The Iowa Hawkeyes regrouped after a pitiful first half and dumped Northern Illinois, 24-0, before 63,478 nervous fans at Kinnick Stadium.
The Hawks snapped a seven-game losing streak with their first victory since a 26-24 verdict over Northwestern last Oct. 10. They sung the Iowa Fight Song in celebration,but many of them didn’t know the words.
“Hawkeye football is back,” quarterback Randy Reiners declared. “We got one today.”
Reiners brushed aside a reminder that Iowa beat a winless team from the Mid-American Conference, a team that lost to Don Patterson’s outfit at Western Illinois and has a 3-33 record since 1996.
“Who cares? It’s a win,” he said. “I saw a lot of pride and I saw a lot of heart. That’s what Hawkeye football is about.”
The first half was nothing to write novels about, but the Hawks (1-2) had fun after intermission with an impressive 99-yard scoring drive and an 87-yard touchdown sprint by linebacker LeVar Woods with a blocked field goal.
Iowa looked like a bad high school team in the first half — confused, disjointed and just not very good. The Hawks led, 3-0, at intermission, but victory was far from assured.
“I’m not real pleased or proud of the first half, and I take full responsibility,” Ferentz said. “We just looked really sloppy out there. I apologize.
“That’s embarrassing,” he said, “especially on a night when we’re honoring Coach Fry and we get so many great players back.”
Fry, honored in pre-game ceremonies for his 20-year career at Iowa, watched this game from the press box, an unusual perch for a man who had a running love/hate relationship with the media during his two decades from 1979 to ’98.
He received a rocking chair from the university, the better to enjoy his retirement, but the former coach could have used an easy chair to endure the tedious first half.
Things greatly improved in the second stanza when the Hawks, pinned by a punt at their own 1, went on a 99-yard, 17-play march that consumed 7 minutes, 57 seconds of the third and fourth quarters and resulted in a 10-0 lead. Reiners finished the drive with a 2-yard run, spinning away from Lamain Rucker, but tailback Ladell Betts did the heavy lifting.
Betts carried 10 times for 61 yards on the march en route to his best day as a Hawkeye. His offensive line took control at the point of impact and gave the hard-charging tailback room to operate. He finished with a career-best 174 yards on 33 tries, snapping his previous high of 151 yards last year against Indiana.
“These are the kind of nights I dreamed of,” said Betts, a sophomore from Blue Springs, Mo. “Any running back would love a night like this.”
Northern Illinois (0-3) threatened to get back in the game after it fell behind 10-0, but a good drive stalled at the 13-yard line and Coach Joe Novak called for a field goal.
Matt Bowen blocked the kick and the ball bounced right to Woods, who recovered from momentary surprise and began running the other way. The 240-pound junior sprinted down the west sidelin the Iowa bench and did a somersault into the end zone. The PAT mde it 17-0 with 9:59 left in the game and the Hawks were in command.
“I dove because I thought somebody was on my tail,” Woods insisted. “I wanted to make sure I scored.”
Iowa salted away the 499th victory in school history when Betts burned into the end zone on a 10-run scamper with 7:03 left. The extra point gave the Hawks a 24-0 bulge, giving them 21 points within a 6:10 span of the fourth quarter.
Reiners, starting his first game this year in place of Kyle McCann, completed 13 of 18 passes for 145 yards. Ferentz had a “gut feeling” Reiners would spark the UI offense after two sluggish games. It didn’t happen right away, and it happened against a lesser light from the Mid-American Conference, but it finally happened.
“I hope we grew up a little bit,” Ferentz said. “I
think we did.”
Iowa has pounded Northern Illinois every time they’ve played: 48-20 in 1985, 57-3 in 1991 and 54-20 in 1993. The Hawks didn’t roll up as many points this time, but they gave Ferentz his first victory here with Fry watching from above. The Hawkeyes gave Ferentz the game ball in appreciation of his efforts.
The Hawkeyes had a chorus of boos ringing in their ears as they left the field after the first half. Iowa had a 3-0 lead at that point, but many UI fans in the crowd of 63,478 were not happy when Ferentz let the final 15 seconds tick away without trying a play from the NIU 41.
It was a mostly inept performance in the first half for Iowa. The only scoring in the first two periods was a 46-yard field goal by Tim Douglas, made possible by Tarig Holman’s interception and 13-yard return to the Northern Illinois 31.
The Hawkeyes “drove” a grand total of two yards on their
march to the ice-breaking field goal. Much of what preceded the field goal was tedious, futile and downright embarrassing on offense.
“That’s just bad football,” Ferentz said. “My sister, with all due respect to her – she’s a nice person – but she could sit up in the stands and realize we looked like a bad football team.”