IOWA CITY -- Christian Kirksey gave himself a tremendous birthday present. He bought it, wrapped it and returned it himself.
Iowa's senior linebacker breathed life back into the Hawkeyes with 27 seconds left in the first quarter. Kirksey jarred Northern Illinois tight end Luke Eakes after a pass reception, forcing a fumble that he scooped up and took 48 yards for a touchdown.
Iowa was down 10-0 at the time and had a second-and-6 from Iowa's 49. Happy 21st birthday, Christian Kirksey.
"Yeah, it's my birthday, but we lost," said Kirksey, who's scored three TDs in the last two seasons. "It's not that exciting."
Yeah, the Hawkeyes lost, 30-27, after quarterback Jake Rudock's interception was turned into a field goal with four seconds left. It was really the last emergency call Iowa's defense couldn't answer in an up-and-down day.
Northern Illinois held the ball for 18:08 minutes in the second half, taxing Iowa's defense on an 85-degree, high-humidity day. Iowa's offense also chunked out three three-and-outs in the second half, including a possession that lasted just 36 seconds.
Last season, Iowa held NIU quarterback Jordan Lynch to just six pass completions. Saturday, the Hawkeyes held the senior, whose school has thrown in on a Heisman Trophy campaign, to 56 rushing yards but allowed 25 of 41 passes for 275 yards and three TDs.
Up-and-down day for the defense, which held NIU to 3.9 yards on 42 carries.
"Overall, we did a good job, but they did break out for a couple of long plays," linebacker Anthony Hitchens said.
Lynch threw TD passes of 40, 21 and 33. They were pretty much uncontested, which was the mantra during the offseason from defensive coordinator Phil Parker. No uncontested big plays.
Iowa's starting cornerbacks, B.J. Lowery and Jordan Lomax, were on the sidelines in the fourth quarter. Lomax had a sore hamstring; Lowery suffered from cramps. True freshman Desmond King and sophomore Sean Draper replaced them.
The new corners weren't the reason for the big plays. Lynch was. Iowa's offense didn't help, either. A holding penalty on defensive tackle Louis Trinca-Pasat kept a live a drive that eventually turned into Lynch's 40-yard TD pass to Tommylee Lewis.
"They do a good job of putting their guys in winning situations," linebacker James Morris said. "They can hurt you in a lot of different ways. We thought we had a good gameplan, but in critical situations, we failed to execute at times."
In an 18-17 victory over NIU at Soldier Field to open last season, Iowa held the Huskies to 201 yards. Saturday, Northern pumped out 438 total yards of offense. Also, the defense was on the field when NIU executed a fake punt. The ball was snapped to the upback, he pitched to punter Tyler Wedel and he gained the edge and went 42 yards to Iowa's 9. It turned out to be a field goal for NIU.
So, not such a great birthday."After a loss, everything is all quiet in your head," Kirksey said when asked about NIU fans celebrating in Kinnick after the final. "You don't hear the noise, you don't here anything. You just go to the lockerroom."