Iowa’s defense shifted from patsy to bully in the span of about 20 minutes Saturday.
After a sluggish opening half at Soldier Field, the Hawkeyes defense dominated the final two quarters, save for one big play. Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch broke free for a 73-yard touchdown run midway through the third quarter. The tally for the other 24 plays in the second half was minus-5 yards.
Middle linebacker James Morris was the key. Iowa adjusted its defense in the second half to keep Morris in the box to defend against the zone read. The scheme change worked, as did a sense of urgency among the defenders.
“I kind of use the analogy (of) hold them at the gate,” Morris said. “When the enemy is trying to get at the gate, it's our defense's job to hold them. You don't know if reinforcements are coming or not. You're going to be there, whether you make it out alive or not. That's the kind of the attitude that we've got to take.”
In the fourth quarter Northern Illinois ran 12 plays for six yards.
C -- Is it too early for the ol’ “C’s get degrees” bit? – Marc Morehouse
C – This doesn’t stand for “catastrophe,” which was on the table almost all game. – Mike Hlas.
C – Some good, some bad, some ugly but nobody talked to a chair. – Scott Dochterman
Iowa running back Damon Bullock. The true sophomore rushed for 150 yards on 30 carries in his first career start. He also scored the game-winning touchdown on a 23-yard run on third-and-9 with 2:15 left in the game.
"Run as fast as you can," said Bullock about what was going through his mind during the play. "In that situation of the game, you need a touchdown real bad, so I saw daylight."
Bullock rushed for a total of 20 yards on 10 carries last year as a freshman.
On an obvious passing down, Iowa ran the football and won the game because of it. Facing third-and-9 from the Northern Illinois 23, Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg was armed with two plays as he approached the line of scrimmage.
Northern Illinois' defense was in the perfect formation to call a run, and Iowa caught the Huskies on their heels. Bullock hit the edge and sprinted to the end zone.
"We talked about it during halftime that if they show up in that, that's what we're going to run," Iowa left tackle Brandon Scherff said.
Vandenberg tried to play coy about the play call, admitting he has the option to change any play.
"We had a good look, we had run that play earlier," Vandenberg said. "We thought it was so close a bunch of times. I kept hearing the O-line talking about it was close. They gave us a look they had given us before, and we got everybody sealed up and we were out the gate. Once he bounced it outside, there was nobody there."
Backup punter John Wienke delivered one of the game's best plays by dropping a punt inside Northern Illinois' 5-yard line with 5:36 left in the game.
The ball caromed toward the goal line, and cornerback Greg Castillo, who replaced an injured B.J. Lowery as a gunner, stopped the ball from rolling into the end zone. Castillo batted it back, and linebacker Christian Kirksey fell on it at the 1-yard line
"I just saw the ball and I touched it, so it's that easy," Castillo said.
Iowa's defense held the Huskies at the 1, and forced a punt, which Iowa's Micah Hyde returned 11 yards to the Northern Illinois 24. Three plays later Bullock rolled 23 yards for the score.
"I knew if the ball was having some hang time up there, I was having some time (to return) because they had to stay there and block a little longer," Hyde said.
Greg Davis' debut as Iowa's offensive coordinator was inauspicious at best. The Hawkeyes managed just 268 total yards. Vandenberg completed 21-of-33 passes for 129 yards, the second-fewest in his 16 career starts.
"I think we have a long way to go," Vandenberg said. "The first game with a lot of new things, there's miscues all over the board starting with myself. We've got to clean those up. Those will come back to bite you"
Iowa's receivers struggled to get open and didn't adjust to the right routes. Kevonte Martin-Manley caught a game-high six passes but managed just 31 yards. Keenan Davis caught five balls for 41 yards, but one was a 20-yard strike late in the second quarter.
"I don't think there was any confusion," Keenan Davis said. "I think once we put it all together (and) we start executing from the line to the running backs to the receivers, I think then we'll start seeing the numbers shoot up. Today was a good learning experience."
Vandenberg was Iowa's second-leading rusher in attempts and at least half of his attempts were by default. Vandenberg was sacked six times, more than 20 percent of his 2011 total.
Vandenberg didn't call out his teammates and just said, "I'll be fine," after the game. But the statistic wounded Scherff.
"We've got to improve on that," Scherff said.
Iowa remains undefeated all-time against Northern Illinois in eight games. The final result was the closest margin of victory against the Huskies. The previous closest was 24-14 in 2006.
Iowa's win also ended Northern Illinois' national-best nine-game winning streak. The Huskies finished 11-3 last year.
"This young team faced a really difficult challenge in playing one of the favorites to win the MAC, the nation's longest winning streak," Morris said. "We were able to bear down and play Iowa football when it mattered most."
Iowa played four true freshmen Saturday. Running back Greg Garmon carried four times for eight yards and and also returned two kickoffs for 42 yards. Cornerbacks Sean Draper and Kevin Buford saw time, while punter Connor Kornbrath punter three times for a 41.3 yard average.