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Bryce Miller: This Hawkeye win spells relief, no matter how you stomach it

[ 0 ] September 1, 2012 |

CHICAGO —You can breathe again in Coralville. It’s OK to exhale in West Branch. Is the color coming back to your face in Riverside?

It’s time to pry the clammy hands away from your eyes at 930 Evashevski Drive in Iowa City, deep in the recesses of the University of Iowa football offices.

Iowa showcased all of its preseason question marks and associated warts during a season-opening road trip to Soldier Field, but it dug out a win anyway, beating Northern Illinois 18-17 on Saturday at Soldier Field.

In the ugly-hardly-matters world of major-college football, the Hawkeyes were relieved beyond words to score their first and only touchdown with a smidge more than 2 minutes left.

Relieved to barely survive a run-in with the Mid-American Conference.

Relieved to win, period, despite the biggest defensive play coming on a downed punt and the offensive star owning the title of placekicker.

In football, looks-challenged 1-0s always top the sexiest of 0-1s.

“Not sure anyone was predicting (a win) in the third quarter,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “We’ve got a long road in front of us.”

The breathing in Coralville, exhaling in Wilton and renewed blood flow in Riverside transpired with 1:18 left in the game, when Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch’s fourth-down attempt fluttered harmlessly to the grass surface.

Only then did Iowa extend its season-opening win streak to 12 games.

Only then did the nation’s longest FBS run of victories end at nine for Northern Illinois.

In a game where the Hawkeye defense struggled to make tackles, receivers spun out of position on routes like stadium drink cups dancing in the wind and the Huskies declared open season on quarterback James Vandenberg, it hardly seemed possible.

“It’s tough when you put that much on the table, when you invest that much, when you play that hard,” said Northern Illinois coach Dave Doeren, a Drake alum.

“To come away with a loss — it hurts.”

The win or loss, depending on your spot on your side of the field, was made possible in large part by the hustling, diving, stretched-out effort of Greg Castillo with 5:36 to go in the game.

Iowa trailed 17-12 before Castillo corralled a John Wienke punt at the Northern Illinois 1-yard line.

The Huskies found themselves in real trouble for the first time all game. They failed to dig out, punted from a wind-whipped endzone and set up Iowa a cozy 24 yards from a lead-erasing touchdown.

“Actually, it was an easy play,” said Castillo, understating the moment and its impact in front of 52,117 witnesses. “I saw the ball, and I touched it.”

Then, new offensive coordinator Greg Davis pulled a third-and-9 gem with a “Don’t they pass here?” run call as Damon Bullock cruised 23 yards without a defender in the same zip code for the game-clincher.

Is there reason for concern with Iowa? Of course. Especially with rival Iowa State looming, fresh from a tidy season-opening win of its own, registered miles more convincingly against a solid Tulsa team.

The questions outnumber the answers by a wide margin.

Can the offensive line protect Vandenberg, who was sacked a bruises-producing six times? Can an offense that managed just 268 yards in 82 plays — and a scant 129 passing — move the ball against Big Ten bullies? Can a defense full of newcomers consistently tackle?

And, after Mike Meyer’s four field goals, will the kicker walk to the podium to accept the team’s MVP award at the postseason banquet?

But one more question: Was anyone really surprised?

This is an inexperienced Iowa team with an upper-case “I,” the greenest in coach Kirk Ferentz’s 14 seasons as the guy with the big office.

Fingers remain crossed in Hawkeye living rooms that veterans on the roster — Vandenberg, center James Ferentz, linebacker James Morris and defensive back Micah Hyde, for starters — might constitute the necessary amount of glue.

All that’s really clear, however, after Iowa’s first 60 minutes: The season could be a Rolaids-gobbling roller coaster for coaches, fans and anyone with Herky on the brain.

Cut the Iowa offense slack on these points: No turnovers, and Bullock finished with 150 yards against the Huskies, who returned 10 starters on defense from an 11-win, MAC-title team a season ago.

Scold the defense on this one, though: The Huskies put eight new offensive starters on the field.

Northern Illinois threatened to add to its own Big Ten trophy case after dumping Minnesota (2010) and Purdue (2009).

In the end, though, Iowa found a way. And as they say: With teams this young, that’ll have to be good enough for now.

“You’re not going to win too many games scoring your first touchdown with two-something left,” Vandenberg said. “… (But) there were never hung heads or doubts.

“We always talk about, ‘Keep throwing punches.’”

Stay tuned.

And stay well-stocked on the Rolaids.

Bryce Miller can be reached at brmiller@dmreg.com or (515) 284-8288. Follow him on Twitter: @Bryce_A_Miller


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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football

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