CHICAGO — Kirk Ferentz finished his postgame interview and made a beeline for the team bus.
He might still be on the run. You know the wheels turned in his head all the way down I-80 after the Hawkeyes saw the iceberg and made a hard left before sinking to the bottom of everything just off the shore of Lake Michigan.
Damon Bullock’s 23-yard touchdown run with 2:15 left in the fourth quarter kept the Hawkeyes (1-0) from going Titanic in game 1, edging defending Mid-American Conference champion Northern Illinois (0-1), 18-17, before 52,117 fans at Soldier Field. The victory snapped the Huskies’ nine-game winning streak, which was the nation’s longest.
Ferentz had four hours on a bus to chew on all the things that looked shaky. His Chik-fil-A probably sat and solidified into a hockey puck.
Passing game had to be up there in his thoughts. Pass protection, for sure. Iowa’s defense had a horrendously slow start, something that will doom the Hawkeyes against a finisher (Iowa State?). Throw in red zone performance and miles of third-and-longs the Hawkeyes faced and you probably didn’t want to sit next to the head coach Saturday night.
“This will be a good learning step, I hope,” Ferentz said. “We’ll see next week. Thank you.” And whoosh, off he went untouched to the bus. Kind of like Bullock on the game-winning TD.
The takeaway here is there’s a lot of work to do, this is a young football team.
That was the first time sophomore Brandon Scherff played left tackle. That was the first time redshirt freshman Austin Blythe played, the first time Brett Van Sloten started at right tackle. That played into the six sacks James Vandenberg endured.
“That’s not an excuse,” Scherff said. “I had to do my job. Their two ends were really fast, they got the edge on us. But we came through in the fourth quarter.”
After clinging to life on Mike Meyer’s four field goals and trailing 17-12 with 3:41 left, the winning drive was set up by a masterpiece John Wienke punt that cornerback Greg Castillo downed at NIU’s half-yard line. The winning drive looked like road kill. It was third-and-9 when Vandenberg took a quick step and slipped the ball to Bullock.
Then, it was like first-team against third-team in an August scrimmage. Guard Matt Tobin walled off a linebacker. Scherff swallowed up the end and Bullock scooted untouched.
It was third-and-9 and first-year offensive coordinator Greg Davis pulled out the outside zone. That took guts.
“It was literally a play we ran a bunch of times during the game, and we had been so close,” said Vandenberg, who completed 21 of 33 for 129 yards (that’s 3.9 yards a pass attempt, lowest of his career). “We kept calling it. We kept getting a look we liked and almost popped it, but 4 yards and a cloud of dust.
“We finally got everyone sealed off and we were finally able to get Damon out on air.”
Bullock, who had 20 career rushing yards going into this game, was on air. He also was Iowa’s offense, providing more than half with his 150 yards on 30 carries. Iowa gained 268 yards. In 14 games last season, NIU’s defense held opponents to less than 280 just once.
It was third-and-9 and Davis called a running play. They’re big, they’re brass.
“I told coach [Greg Davis] after it was a brilliant call,” Bullock said. “I wasn’t even expecting it. It was third-down-and-10 and I was getting ready to pass block, then he called a running play. I was surprised, but, you know, it worked, so it’s all good.”
It’s not quite all good. In fact, there were times Saturday when it was all pretty bad.
When NIU quarterback Jordan Lynch broke 73 yards for a 17-8 lead with 9:43 left in the third quarter, it looked really, really bad. End Joe Gaglione lost contain. Linebacker James Morris was punched out out by the tackle. Free safety Tanner Miller lost the angle.
Lots and lots of bad. And then the fourth quarter happened.
The Hawkeyes defense got two of its five three-and-outs in the fourth. The Huskies gained a total of 19 yards. Their last-gasp chance started at their 21 with 2:18 left. That was a four-and-out, with Lynch, who had 119 yards on 18 carries, throwing a pass into to the turf to end it.
For as shaky as Iowa’s defense looked early in the game, it did hold NIU to 201 total yards, the fewest it’s allowed in 22 games (112 against Ball State in 2010). The Huskies’ 12 first downs were the fewest against Iowa since that same Ball State game in 2010.
“I’m not super happy with how we played at times, but I’m really proud of how we hung in there and stuck together,” Morris said. “When we needed the juice, we found the juice.”
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