We interrupt the fading days of spring with a question to ponder between now and the time footballs take flight …
When was the last time Iowa played a bigger season-opener in helmets and shoulder pads than the one parked on Aug. 31 against Northern Illinois?
And when did a season-starter with that much on the line mean muscling through a player so immediately in the Heisman Trophy discussion, such as Huskies quarterback Jordan Lynch?
Search the memory banks and abuse your computer mouse. Go back. Then go back some more.
It’s been more than a quarter of a century since a win to kick off things for Iowa felt so necessary.
The program’s last back-to-back losing seasons came in 1999-2000 as Kirk Ferentz pulled out hammer and nails to start rebuilding a program staggering in ways fans last saw in the late-1970s. Success in those openers felt like the tallest of tasks to followers, though — both games were mis-matchups against top-10 teams (Nebraska, Kansas State).
For the tone-setting start to 2013, when the stakes feel higher than most season openers have a right to feel, the Hawkeyes face the same eyes, arm and legs that launched 2012. Lynch is the best dual-threat quarterback in the country not named Johnny Manziel or Braxton Miller.
Iowa needs to beat Northern Illinois to soothe a football psyche that has every right to be fragile, and to make six-win bowl eligibility more realistic as the rugged Big Ten Conference run follows. That means dealing with Lynch, who accounted for a stunning 75 percent of his team’s offensive yards in a season that started with an 18-17 loss to the Hawkeyes and ended in the Orange Bowl.
If anything, the loss to Iowa propped up confidence for Lynch rather than stifling it.
“It always stinks to walk out of the game with a loss, but I remember standing in the locker room and everyone was positive,” Lynch told the Des Moines Register this week. “No one was putting anyone down. I felt like that was a key moment. It’s like we made a pact to do whatever it takes to win.
“Iowa was a big-time opponent. They play games on TV. Whenever you play a BCS team, you feel like you need to give it your best shot. We built off that.”
Lynch, quite simply, might be the most challenging season-opening quarterback Iowa has faced in three decades.
The best argument against that is Ben Roethlisberger, the current Pittsburgh Steelers star who led the Miami of Ohio team that lost 21-3 against the Hawkeyes to start the 2003 season.
Iowa easily handled the future NFL All-Pro in that game, intercepting four passes, holding Roethlisberger to no touchdown passes and sacking him four times. The season before, though, Big Ben loomed large indeed in the Hawkeyes’ second game of that season — spraying the ball around for 343 yards despite losing 29-24.
Are must-win conversations about season-opening football games ridiculous? Almost always. Are debates about “must wins” in June as ill-matched as peanut butter and pickled herring? Nearly every single time.
On this lap around, though, it’s impossible to ignore the importance. It’s one game, yes. But it’s a doozy in terms of how a win or a loss can affect the games that follow.
Iowa is coming off a four-win season and will be faced with questions about its unsteadiness on offense until a new quarterback shows he’s capable of operating a system unproven in Johnson County.
Sweeping through the non-conference season 4-0 and a returning to the land of bowls becomes achievable under a full head of steam. Split those games — Vegas says Iowa State, for example, is favored Sept. 14 — and a six-win journey begins to feel like a hike without water while carrying a 100-pound backpack up Mount Kilimanjaro.
Waiting to help shift momentum and mountain is Lynch, the first difference-maker Iowa will face.
The danger with Lynch, as scads of teams discovered, is that he can be held in check for a couple of quarters — until, well, he isn’t. A 2-yard loss here, a 3-yard gain there. Then, the system naps — just for a moment — and No. 6 runs for six.
In last season’s opener at Soldier Field in Chicago, that moment arrived in the third quarter. Lynch tucked the ball on a keeper in shotgun formation, cut inside, darted outside and ran 73 yards for a touchdown that pushed Northern Illinois to an eight-point lead.
Iowa recovered, catching the Huskies’ defense off-guard with a third-and-8 run call that ended in a 23-yard touchdown with less than three minutes left.
The game was enough to know, though, that Lynch can be the monster lurking in the closet.
“We had some shots in that game,” Lynch said. “The last two minutes, their defense came up with a big stop and their offense put a drive together.
“They were physical, they got after it, and they were well-coached. We knew it would be tough, and it was.”
So was Lynch.
Teams know that “Mr. 75 Percent of The Offense” is getting his name called. A lot.
Worrying about Lynch isn’t a signal of drained confidence in Iowa’s locker room. It’s not a sign the appropriate level of major-conference swagger is lacking. It’s smart. Zeroing on Lynch just makes sense: Cut off the head and the body is likely to fall.
Iowa has faced strong quarterbacks in openers: Roethlisberger, Nebraska’s Eric Crouch (1999), Ore
gon’s Bill Musgrave (1989) to name a few. In those games, though, winning felt less realistic or program confidence wasn’t so sorely in need of a jolt.
Plus, Iowa has won 12 openers in a row. The Hawkeyes, like most BCS-level teams, don’t make a habit of dropping the first game on the dance card. Expectations were measured, appropriate and low when Ferentz began to rebuild in 1999 and 2000. This season, though, gives off a different vibe.
Must win? In an opener?
Consider the big picture and add in a special player like Lynch, and it feels more like one than Iowa fans have seen in a long, long time.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football