Three cool things:
1. Hey, Soldier Field! OK, OK, Soldier Field is nice, but, yes, Iowa can do better than Northern Illinois for this.
Not a slight against Northern Illinois. The headliner would be Iowa-Notre Dame at Soldier Field. That’s the game that should be played.
The question there is does Iowa bring enough weight to that? Why would Notre Dame play Iowa? You might disagree, but, objectively, there has to be some ratings weight on the other end of the rope. Or Iowa has to be a top-15 team for a couple of seasons and then, maybe, let’s talk.
I think Kirk Ferentz has a ton of respect for the NIU program, going back to coach Joe Novak. I think the Brian Ferentz train to replace his dad as Iowa’s head coach is definitely in play. If for whatever reason that doesn’t happen, I could see Iowa and Rod Carey, NIU’s current head coach, happening.
2. Bryan Bulaga made his Hawkeye debut in this game. He was a true freshman O-lineman from the Chicago suburbs. I’m thinking this was a dream moment for him. But then, in his seven years with the Packers, Bulaga has won at Soldier Field seven times (Green Bay has a 7-2 record at Soldier Field since 2010). And, oh yeah, Bulaga won a Super Bowl in his rookie season with the Packers.
Bryan was hugely fun to cover. Big voice, big laugh. Excellent sense of humor. After the 2010 Orange Bowl, you could tell he really wanted to just say, yeah, I’m leaving early for the NFL, but Kirk Ferentz put the clamps on that and that still stands (James Daniels and Josh Jackson weren’t telling us anything after the Pinstripe Bowl).
3. This game kicked off right after the titanic upset that Appalachian State pulled off on Michigan at the Big House.
It probably wasn’t the strongest theme to run with, but hey, at least Iowa wasn’t Michigan on this day. How many times can you say that?
Quote: Running back Albert Young: “Damn, did you see we both had 100?”
“Yeah, oh yeah,” fellow running back Damian Sims said. “I saw that.”
Note: Here’s a number I’m totally making up, but it might be reasonable. You tell me, this is a number you’ll relate to.
786 — The number of cases of Busch Light I saw being carried into tailgates at Soldier that day.
Why No. 133? — After Wisconsin beat LSU at Lambeau Field Iowa athletics director Gary Barta said, hey, let’s check this out for the Hawkeyes. And then the next non-conference game to go up on the board was Middle Tennessee State. Well, Iowa State wasn’t going to let Iowa out of the contract (it’d be $1 million to break it). I think Iowa had someone on the line and tried to hook up a neutral deal, but I don’t know what that deal was.
So, in the end, this was a win over a MAC team in what probably was Kirk Ferentz’s stormiest season (no bowl and major off-field issues).
PREVIOUS COVERAGE OF THE GAME
Game story from 2007
CHICAGO — No, it wasn’t nice and tidy.
It was a quarterback who looked a little shaky in his second start. It was 10 penalties for 173 yards. It was eight dropped passes. It was a kicker who couldn’t kick straight. It was one shanked punt. It was an offensive lineman running around in circles on the field-goal unit.
The Hawkeyes (1-0) left a lot on the table Saturday at Soldier Field. But it was a 16-3 victory over Northern Illinois (0-1) before 61,500 mostly Iowa fans.
It was a 40-3 victory shaved down because of all of the above, but it was a victory. It wasn’t Michigan, a 34-32 home loser to Appalachian State, a Football Championship Subdivision school.
Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz will wake up Sunday morning and he won’t be Michigan Coach Lloyd Carr. Take a deep breath. It wasn’t Michigan.
“Yeah, we heard that after the game,” Iowa defensive lineman Matt Kroul said. “I can’t believe that. Can you believe it?”
In light of the big bomb in the Big House, Iowa’s victory over a team picked for a second-tier finish in the Mid-American Conference looked like football artistry. For the beauty in Iowa’s victory you have to look at the ugly grunt work of football.
Running backs Albert Young and Damian Sims rushed for 144 and 110 yards, respectively, repeating their 2005 performance against Minnesota, the last time a pair of Iowa running backs went over 100 yards.
“Damn, did you see we both had 100?” Young yelled from one interview clump in the gray guts of Soldier Field.
The 100 yards is been-there, done-that for Young, who did it for the 11th time. It’s still sort of new for Sims, who logged just his third.
“Yeah, oh yeah,” Sims said. “I saw that.”
Iowa’s running game was the spine of its victory. It was the one thing the Hawkeyes could lean on.
“The biggest difference was that Iowa was able to run the ball and we weren’t,” NIU Coach Joe Novak said. “When we throw the ball 40-plus times (42, to be exact), that’s not good for us.”
Iowa’s offense sort of futzed around through the first quarter. Sophomore quarterback Jake Christensen started the game 1-for-7 and was 2-for-9 before a scramble to nowhere and a sack near the end of the first quarter. Then, junior wide receiver Andy Brodell found a seam and returned a punt 56 yards down Iowa’s sideline to NIU’s 20. That gave the Hawkeyes something to work with.
“It did a lot for us,” Brodell said. “We came out maybe a little jittery and there were a lot of guys on the offensive side of the ball who hadn’t played a whole lot. It really got us going as far as field position.”
Young carried three straight times, giving Iowa a 6-0 lead on a 7-yard run with 12:19 left in the second quarter.
After a 55-yard punt pinned the Hawkeyes at their 5, they really leaned on Young, Sims and an offensive line that had three new starters, including sophomore Travis Meade, who won the last spot at left guard.
Young carried four straight times, moving the ball to Iowa’s 33. Then, offensive coordinator Ken O’Keefe made a masterful call, a play-action pass to wideout James Cleveland for a 40-yard gain to NIU’s 33.
Christensen finished off the 95-yard drive with a 5-yard TD pass to tight end Brandon Myers.
You could almost feel the weight being taken off Christensen. He didn’t force it, just let the game come, and he finally had a few highlights to show for it.
“I thought, and he’d probably be the first one to tell you, he missed some reads, missed some open receivers at times,” Ferentz said. “On the plus side, I thought his demeanor was great. He saw things out there. He managed the team and the huddle, all those intangible things you take for granted sometimes.”
Christensen finished just 12 of 29 for 133 yards and the one TD. He was hounded by eight drops, but he also missed his share of open receivers.
He’s OK. It was a win. It wasn’t Michigan.
“We left some opportunities out there,” Christensen said. “But the good thing is we had a chance for those opportunities. Sooner or later, we’ll start taking advantage of those.”
If Iowa’s running game was the spine, its defense was everything else. When Iowa was bullying the Big Ten in 2002 and 2004, you heard defensive coordinator Norm Parker use the term “one-dimensional,” meaning the Hawkeyes stopped the run and forced their opponents to pass.
Iowa did that kind of bullying Saturday, holding the Huskies to 21 yards on 21 carries. It was the lowest rush total against the Hawkeyes since they held Montana to 10 in last season’s opener.
NIU quarterback Dan Nicholson completed 26 of 42 for 214 yards and three interceptions, two by cornerback Charles Godfrey. Nicholson also was sacked three times, including two by tackle Mitch King.
The Hawkeyes held Northern Illinois to 235 total yards. The defense wasn’t about to have a Michigan happen on its watch.
“As a defense, we want to stop the run. We want to pound them,” Godfrey said. “We want those guys to stop the run and we’ll take care of the pass.”
It wasn’t perfect — far from it. But it wasn’t Michigan.
It’s still football season in Iowa City. It’s something else in Ann Arbor.