IOWA CITY, Ia. — It was a black-and-gold victory, with plenty of red flags.
“We learned a lot about ourselves,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said after Saturday’s 31-23 victory against Northern Iowa at Kinnick Stadium.
A lot of what he learned was not pleasant to watch, and that had fans squirming on the edge of their seats until one last defensive stop in the game’s final minute.
In the end, it was a win. More on that later.
In the beginning and middle, the Panthers’ David Johnson made Iowa’s defense look silly. He racked up 203 receiving yards in five catches.
Iowa’s touted offensive line struggled to control the game, especially on the right side of center.
Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock needed 31 completions to reach 250 yards.
The running game spun in neutral. Tevaun Smith, a wide receiver, was the leading rusher with 35 yards.
It was a trial by fire for the linebackers and new-look secondary that got torched by Sawyer Kollmorgen’s 380 yards passing.
The kicking game remains a concern, too.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Iowa’s Brandon Scherff admitted, though it didn’t take a preseason all-American and Outland Trophy candidate to figure that out.
Iowa took a 24-13 lead on Smith’s circus catch less than 5 minutes into the second half. Forty-two seconds later, Johnson stutter-stepped past linebacker Quinton Alston and sprinted to the end zone for a 70-yard touchdown.
Johnson had gotten loose on a 53-yard gain on an identical play on the Panthers’ first possession of the game. Alston was supposed to have help from a safety rotating on coverage.
It was missing.
“We had a lot of communication issues,” Alston said. “Day 1 stuff, Game 1 stuff. All of it correctable.”
Momentum clearly changed after Johnson’s long touchdown catch. And when the Panthers’ Michael Schmadeke kicked a 38-yard field goal with 12:42 remaining to cut the deficit to 24-23, it looked like Northern Iowa was poised to leave Kinnick Stadium with more than its $550,000 guarantee.
But then Iowa showed me something: Mistakes that had haunted this team through three quarters were corrected on the fly.
The defensive line started to control the game when it counted, putting pressure on Kollmorgen and throwing him around like a rag doll. Iowa ended up with an astounding 13 tackles for a loss, the most for a Hawkeye defense since a 35-0 win over Syracuse in 2007.
“I thought the whole group up front really started playing with a little bit more juice and energy, and that’s important because that’s where it’s tough,” Ferentz said. “That’s where games get decided.”
The defense did a much better job of keeping Johnson in check. The Panthers tried to sneak him out of the backfield again on their last possession, and linebacker Reggie Spearman was all over him.
Ferentz loved the resiliency his team displayed with the game on the line in the fourth quarter.
“We didn’t have any choice, but sometimes you don’t answer, either,” Ferentz said. “I think the guys amped it up there in the fourth quarter after struggling, and it wasn’t much fun there for awhile.”
The bottom line that really matters is this: Iowa is 1-0. Which beats the heck out of 0-1 (see Northern Illinois 30, Iowa 27 in the 2013 season opener).
Ferentz said afterward he knew his team was in for a struggle.
“This is pretty much 60 minutes of turmoil in your stomach,” Ferentz said. “And I might as well get used to it because that’s usually how it feels.“
There was a lot of hand-wringing in Hawkeye Nation after a 17-16 escape against the Panthers in 2009, when Iowa needed to block field goals on the final two plays of the game to survive.
“We didn’t need a blocked field goal today,” said Iowa graduate assistant Broderick Binns, who blocked the first field goal five seasons ago.
That 2009 team wound up winning the Orange Bowl.
I’m not saying that will happen again in 2014, but 1-0 sure beats 0-1.
As Ferentz said: “You don’t get them back.”
Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. On Twitter: @ByRickBrown.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football