CHICAGO –On the first Sunday of December, the bowl committees don’t ask how or by how many points you won on the first Saturday of September.
Three years ago, Iowa escaped by the hair on its chinny-chin-chin in its season-opener and somehow eluded Northern Iowa, 17-16. Saturday in Soldier Field, the Hawkeyes had an equally stressful and often gloomy first game, but slipped past Northern Illinois, 18-17.
An omen for, say, a 10-2 regular-season and BCS bowl bid? Uh, not necessarily. That 2009 Iowa team started three NFL defensive linemen-in-waiting, two NFL linebackers-in-waiting, a quarterback who is now on an NFL roster, an offensive tackle who already has a Super Bowl ring …
Here’s what the 2012 Hawkeyes have right now: A victory. And that’s about it, until proven otherwise. But it sure beats the alternative.
“It was a great team win,” Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg said.
That may have been exaggerating things, a tad. But you can’t deny the win came from some interesting places.
How about John Wienke, a fifth-year senior who came to Iowa to play quarterback and threw two career passes, both interceptions? Wienke changed his fight in the spring, going from quarterback to punter. And he began this season as the No. 2 guy, losing out to true freshman Connor Kornbrath.
Kornbrath had Iowa’s first three punts against the Huskies, and did a credible job in averaging 41.3 yards without NIU getting a return of more than five yards. But Iowa’s fourth punt, which required a premium on precision, was handed to Wienke with under six minutes left and Iowa trailing 17-12.
From the Iowa 44, Wienke’s kick died inside the 5 and was killed at the 1 by Greg Castillo. That defensive back, by the way, started Iowa’s first two games last season and then was benched as Iowa fit Tanner Miller into the lineup.
Castillo was inserted at cornerback early in the third quarter when B.J. Lowery was injured, and didn’t seem to hurt his team a bit. He really, really helped it on that punt team.
Wienke and Castillo produced field position that proved to be too daunting for the Huskies, and set up Iowa with a much-needed short field for its one and only touchdown drive of the day.
“That was as good as you could get,” placekicker Mike Meyer said of Wienke’s punt, “a perfect kick.”
Meyer was close to perfection himself, going 4-for-5 in field goals including a 50-yarder with 9:33 left to pull the Hawkeyes within 17-12. Oh, those three points loomed large as the game grew late. Had NIU held a 17-9 lead, it could have taken a safety on its drive that began at the 1 and gotten some breathing room for its defense with a free kick. But a safety with a 17-12 score would have made it 17-14 and let Iowa tie the game with yet another Meyer field goal.
So the Huskies punted into the wind, Iowa started at the NIU 24, and three plays later Damon Bullock utilized some stifling seal-blocks to sprint 23 yards down the left sideline for the game-changing, game-deciding touchdown.
How about Bullock? Before the game, some wondered if he could be a 20-carry guy. No, not at all. Instead, he was a 30-carry guy, for 150 yards. How’s that for symmetry, 30 and 150?
If there is some sort of — oh, I don’t know, let’s make up some kind of kooky name that’s surely never been used before and call it an Iowa Angry Running Back Hating God — it took the Labor Day weekend off. Because Bullock was a bull.
Last Tuesday, Kirk Ferentz said sophomore Bullock and freshmen Greg Garmon and Michael Malloy would carry the ball here. Garmon got four carries, got his feet wet. Malloy’s number wasn’t called. Bullock had nine rushes for 42 yards on Iowa’s first drive. And away he went.
Away he went on that TD run with 2:15 remaining, too.
It was 3rd-and-9 at the NIU 23. A passing down. But the Huskies’ linebackers were caught in a blitz. Matt Tobin, Brandon Scherff and Zach Derby threw blocks to give Bullock daylight. The running back’s reaction?
“Sweet,” he said. “Run as fast as you can.
“We needed a touchdown really bad. I saw daylight and ran hard.”
Without a trace of humor, Bullock said “I told Coach after, ‘That was just a brilliant call.’ I wasn’t even expecting it. It was third-down and I was ready to pass-block.”
Greg Davis, the veteran offensive coordinator calling his first game for Iowa, wasn’t pass-happy in a passing situation. At halftime, Iowa’s coaches had said that specific running play would work. Oh, how it worked.
But the bus back to Iowa City had to contain more relief than joy. Like that UNI game three years ago, the Hawkeyes got away with one here.
Statistically, Iowa was terrific in many facets. It held NIU to 201 yards for its most-stifling effort in that department in two years, and 73 of those came on quarterback Jordan Lynch’s dazzling touchdown dash.
The Hawkeyes had the ball for almost 39 minutes, didn’t commit a turnover, had much-improved special teams play.
But aesthetically, this wasn’t so hot. Although much can change from Game 1 to Game 2 to Game 3, and so forth, the Hawkeyes’ offensive line is more a work-in-progress than many might have anticipated.
Six sacks? Yes, Iowa surrendered six sacks to a Mid-American Conference club, albeit one with a veteran and talented defense. Six!
That helped make Vandenberg look pretty ordinary. So did receivers who couldn’t separate themselves from speedy NIU defensive backs all game. And so did Vandenberg himself.
Some of his throwing mechanics, footwork, vision and decision-making were less than the stuff of a standout Big Ten quarterback.
It was one game, and we know we’ve seen much better from Vandy and undoubtedly will again, maybe against Iowa State. But this wasn’t an NFL audition tape in an NFL stadium.
He averaged less than four yards per pass attempt. Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez, who many consider a shot-putter who throws a football, had over 10 yards per pass and five TD passes Saturday against Southern Mississippi.
But again, Vandenberg’s 21-of-33 for 129 yards were far from being all on him. He spoke cheerfully after the game, saying “The good thing is it was a lot of mistakes by us, a lot of things we can correct and get better at.”
I’m pretty sure Ricky Stanzi said something similar after that 1-point win over UNI three years ago. Which the Orange Bowl considered a splendid triumph by the Hawkeyes, by the way.