IOWA CITY — Look at the bright side. Now Iowa’s losing to a better class of Mid-American Conference teams.
Last year, Iowa lost to Central Michigan in Kinnick Stadium on a field goal with three seconds left. Later in the season, it fell at home to Purdue on a last-second field goal.
Saturday, it was a 36-yarder by Mathew Sims with: 04 remaining that gave Northern Illinois a 30-27 win over the Hawkeyes at Kinnick.
Are you sensing a pattern here?
The puny consolation for the Hawkeyes is this was a legitimate opponent with a big-time quarterback in Jordan Lynch. But there’s no real consolation. This was a game Iowa should have won, but didn’t bolt down. Like, you know, the two aforementioned others.
Yes, the Huskies had the best quarterback in the stadium. Yes, Iowa was going with a first-time starter who threw an ill-advised final pass for the interception that, at worst, kept his team from going to overtime.
But just like in those close defeats among Iowa’s eight losses last year, the Hawkeyes didn’t have a pinch of this or a dash of that when it mattered most.
Blame the defense, which wilted from the enemy quarterback and the heat midway through the fourth quarter as Lynch whipped off five quick completions in as many throws to take his team 75 yards and tie the game at 27.
Blame the punt-coverage. Stop me if you’d heard this one before. A snap to NIU punter Tyler Wedel turned into a 26-yard gain by Wedel, and the Huskies finished the drive with a third-quarter field goal.
“Was it a surprise?” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. “No. These guys fake punts, fake field goals. They’ve run plenty of them the last couple years. We had our punt-safe team out there, and they made a play and we don’t.”
So the Hawkeyes are getting closer to sniffing out fakes. Someday ...
And blame Iowa’s offense, which didn’t stay on the field long enough to stop its defense from getting all achy and breaky. You can pick nits for the next week, but two play-calls down the stretch stick out.
On the last play of the third quarter, Iowa had a 3rd-and-1 at its 40. Enter new receiver Damond Powell, whose lone play of the game had resulted in his 49-yard catch. Iowa swung for the fences when a solid grounder — er, one-yard run — would have worked. A bomb to Powell — it looked like a fine pass — didn’t land in his hands, and Iowa punted.
Zip ahead to the Hawkeyes facing a 3rd-and-9 with a little over two minutes left and the game tied. The call was a bubble screen to Kevonte Martin-Manley. It gained one yard, and Iowa punted. The Hawkeyes needed a big swing there and instead hit a soft pop-up.
Iowa and bubble screens are like a bad relationship in which the two parties can’t ever seem to break away from each other.
The Huskies had curious play-calling of their own on their subsequent possession, giving Iowa the ball back at the Iowa 45 with 1:24 left. It smacked of opportunity, which was lost on the drive’s first play when NIU safety Jimmie Ward read Rudock beautifully and picked him off at midfield. Three plays later, Sims made the game-winning kick.
One game does not a quarterback’s body of work make, but Rudock was all right. He looks like he can make a lot of throws, can manage an offense, can think on his feet. His tuck-and-run for a 6-yard score late in the first half wasn’t a play every new starter would have made in that moment.
He’s a sophomore and has a ways to go to establish himself, obviously. But this loss isn’t on him, even if his worst pass of the day was a virtual game-decider.
You looked at the 2013 schedule and saw several coin-flips for the Hawkeyes. This was one, and Iowa lost the flip. Again.
Hey, this was an entertaining and compelling game. For much of it, it seemed like a palate-cleanser from last season. But with hopefully no disrespect taken by an impressive NIU outfit, this may not be one of the half-dozen best teams on Iowa’s slate.
Still, at least Kirk Herbstreit can’t again cry “They lost to Iowa!” on ESPN if Northern Illinois goes 13-0 and returns to a BCS bowl.
Two straight home losses to MAC teams. Two or five or 10 or 25 years ago, could you have dreamed that sentence might be written about the Hawkeyes?