IOWA CITY — This was a day where you wondered if everything would hold up.
First, there was that crazy rainstorm on Tuesday that left the Kinnick Stadium turf bubbling like islands in a flood of mudwater. Then, the Hawkeyes were short-handed at the offensive and defensive tackle spots. New running backs, a quick tire change at middle linebacker, you wondered if this all was going to hold up.
And then the Hawkeyes went out and goat herded Northern Illinois (0-1) around Kinnick in a 33-7 season-opening victory Saturday before a crowd of 67,510.
Running back Toren Young’s 225 pounds seemed to weigh closer to 500 when he finally hit the field in the second half, on this 80-degree and insanely humid day. His 84 yards and TD on eight carries put some wind into the offense and helped Iowa (1-0) rush for 209 yards on 48 carries and basically headlock this thing in the second half.
And then you wondered how the coach would hold up.
Head coach Kirk Ferentz began his 20th season as Iowa’s head coach with his 144th victory, pushing him ahead of Hayden Fry as Iowa’s all-time winningest coach.
You wondered how he’d hold up.
“Such a guy with high character and really cares about his players and who we are as people,” defensive end Parker Hesse said. “Playing for him is a great honor. Being here for this special moment for him is something we’ll remember forever.”
Ferentz got a handshake from his offensive coordinator and son Brian and turned and waved to the crowd. He made it through his Big Ten Network interview without tears. He made it through the postgame, just a little quiver at the end when someone asked about family.
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“If I ever retire, if they have a retirement dinner that I probably won’t show up for, and then they can talk about all of this stuff,” Ferentz said. “Broader picture, I think it’s a great commentary about Iowa.”
Everything held up.
Ferentz’s record breaker was never in danger, but, indicative of Ferentz’s career, it didn’t come without struggle and pretty amazing teamwork. Next week against Iowa State, Iowa will have NFL-level offensive tackles back in the lineup and two more defensive tackles to throw in the mix.
This week, it was Dalton Ferguson, a former walk-on from Solon. He was a fifth-year walk-on until the end of camp, when he was awarded a scholarship.
Saturday at Kinnick, he ran out of the tunnel and he was going to start for the Hawkeyes.
“I’ve done my time,” Ferguson said. “I’m out in front of the swarm running out of the tunnel. I started to tear up and then they played the Nile Kinnick excerpt and I was tearing up again. At that moment, I thought, ‘This is what I was preparing for.’”
The first half was rough, but the Hawkeyes rushed for 151 yards in the second, with Young punching through on his first carry, a career-long 40-yarder in the third quarter. Iowa only ran 37 plays in the first half, that’s why Young’s carries were throttled, Ferentz said.
“It was an outside run play, the O-line did a great job springing it,” said Young, who was the third back to touch the ball against NIU. “They opened up the hole and I just ran.”
Iowa ran a lot of outside zone and was content to let the cumulative effect of the Big Ten vs. the Mid-American Conference play out.
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Iowa’s offense, which finished with 352 yards and averaged 4.8 yards on 73 plays, could’ve freaked out in the first half. Tight end Noah Fant, a preseason all-American, had two penalties and dropped what would’ve been — should’ve if you ask him — a TD.
“I’ve made that catch hundreds of times,” said Fant, whose 1-yard TD catch in the third quarter gave Iowa a 10-0 lead. “First-game jitters and even with me being a junior, that first game back in Kinnick is surreal.”
Iowa leaned on its defense early. It was there late, too. The Hawkeyes’ five sacks were the most since they had five against Illinois State in the 2015 season opener. The 211 yards total offense allowed is the fewest against the Hawkeyes since 198 against Illinois in 2016, a span of 15 games.
“Our defensive line made him roll out, they brought good pressure,” said safety Amani Hooker, whose first-half interception stopped a drive that reached Iowa’s 23. “All fall camp, the defensive line made plays. This was nothing new, except it was live.”
Kind of a real Ferentz kind of day. Nothing really new, yet it was live.
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