How would you rank the football programs of Iowa’s three state universities based solely on Saturday’s opening-game performances alone?
You could have a spirited debate over No. 1. Is it Northern Iowa for pushing Wisconsin way harder than the Badgers or anyone else dreamed they would be pushed before falling, 26-21 in Madison? Or is it Iowa State, which posted a 38-23 win over a Tulsa team that was 44-22 over the previous five seasons and has put a lot of scoreboard lights to work with its offense?
It certainly wouldn’t be Iowa. Although, ’tis far better to win than not, and the Hawkeyes did just that against a salty Northern Illinois club, 18-17.
I might lean to the only team of the three that didn’t win, though. Had Las Vegas posted a line on the UNI-Wisconsin game, the Badgers probably would have been a 35- to 40-point pick.
Wisconsin’s average margin of victory against its four nonconference foes last year was 40 points. That included a 49-7 stomping of Northern Illinois in Chicago, and the Huskies went on to go 11-3.
Had you told me Montee Ball would score just one touchdown for Wisconsin, I would have thought you were guessing he would get injured midway through the first quarter. Had you predicted Ball would be held under four yards per carry (32 rushes for 120 yards) I would have assumed you thought Ball’s five 1-yard touchdown runs would lower his yards-per-carry average.”
Here’s what Ball said: “Very frustrated. I guess because I am kind of used to the big holes and the 40-yard runs.”
UNI gave a wonderful account of itself. It never surrendered, even when it was down 19-0 in the third quarter and had yet to move the ball into Wisconsin territory.
The Panthers were using a red-shirt freshman at quarterback, an Oklahoman with a great name. Sawyer Kollmorgan kept battling. He hit on two long touchdown passes and threw for 268 yards.
“There’s a lot of FBS schools that I’d rather play than those guys,” Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. “They’re a really, really good football team.
“I told (Badger players) that any win is a good win. It couldn’t have been any better.”
Scoff if you will, but that was the same feeling Iowa’s players and coaches seemed to have Saturday night in Chicago. They, like Wisconsin, knew coming in that they weren’t going up against blocking dummies.
If you want to go broke, a good way is to underestimate non-BCS outfits with proven track records, like Northern Iowa and Northern Illinois. Football teams can be pretty good even if they don’t have a “B1G” stamped on their jerseys.
Another such club is Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane rarely gets noticed in its own state, let alone nationally. But part of the reason Marvin McNutt of Iowa is on the Philadelphia Eagles’ practice squad and not its active roster is because undrafted free agent Damaris Johnson of Tulsa came in and won a receiver’s job with the Eagles.
Tulsa jumped to a 16-7 first-quarter lead in Ames Saturday. Many an ISU team of the past would have folded. These Cyclones bore down, and led 24-16 at halftime, and outplayed the Hurricane after that.
That is a very good win. Iowa State was a Vegas underdog. This was the eighth time ISU has won as the underdog in Paul Rhoads’ three seasons + one game.
Now, the Cyclones still have quite a distance to travel to even be in the discussion as a program that can finish in the top half of the Big 12, which may be the nation’s foremost football conference this year even though Alabama resides in the SEC. But the talent keeps getting better in Ames, and so does the depth.
Shontrelle Johnson darted off the sideline and reclaimed his No. 1 spot at running back with 120 yards on 18 carries. James White was no slouch himself Saturday, with 10 totes for 54 yards.
Steele Jantz had as good of an opening game at quarterback as the Cyclones could have expected with a career-high 281 passing yards. ISU has a better and much more balanced offense than does Northern Illinois, so Iowa’s defense has some work to do this week.
Rhoads will say the exact same thing about his team, and he’ll be right. His ISU teams have yet to build a week-to-week consistency that mark a strong program. He needs a second-straight strong showing by his men to have a decent chance of taking home the latest version of the Cy-Hawk Trophy.
In 2009, Iowa beat UNI by just one point, then beat Iowa State the following Saturday. In 2011, ISU beat the Panthers by just one point, then turned around the next week and defeated Iowa.
Week 1 always changes a lot of impressions about college football teams. Week 2 usually does, also.