IOWA CITY, Iowa – After a first half that saw missed opportunities by both teams, Northern Illinois couldn’t contain Iowa’s offense in the second half in a 33-7 season-opening loss at Kinnick Stadium.
The Huskies’ missed opportunities shone brightest on a pair of missed field goals – both wide left – from 33 and 49 yards. The first came on NIU’s first possession, following Jauan Wesley’s punt block at the Iowa 23-yard line; the second was the final series of the first half, when NIU took over at the Iowa 45.
The NIU defense did its part before the break, limiting Iowa to 58 yards on the ground and 148 total. Albert Smalls stopped Iowa’s deepest drive, picking off a Nathan Stanley pass at the NIU 7 on the Hawkeyes’ third possession. A fourth-down stuff at the Huskies’ 38-yard line also kept the score 3-0.
“It’s the kind of recipe to win, is to kind of get off to a good start like that, and certainly it was frustrating,” NIU coach Rod Carey said. “But I liked the way the guys didn’t blink, and it didn’t faze them from the standpoint of ‘All right, we just blocked a punt and didn’t get any points, so let’s go stop them and get the ball back and go do it again.’ I think you saw that through the first half.”
The second half was a different story. Iowa scored touchdowns on three straight possessions, then tacked on a safety after pinning the Huskies down at their own 1-yard line midway through the fourth quarter. Iowa scored its final TD after the free kick.
“They’re a really good football who we have a ton of respect for, and that second half, they proved it,” Carey said. “They got after our butt, and really, I think the difference was their D-line got after our O-line in the second half. That put our defense on the field too much, they caused some turnovers, and all of a sudden we’re looking at a game that’s 17, then 24, then obviously the safety right there, and then the last one.
“I thought the first half, we probably outplayed them; we didn’t outscore them, but outplayed them. But certainly the second half, you have to give them credit. We played better than them the first half and they were up by three; they played better than us the second half and they were up a lot.”
The Huskies avoided the shutout when Marcus Childers hit a wide-open Wesley in the back corner of the end zone for a 10-yard TD pass with 2:12 to play. Childers stepped up in the pocket and then took a few steps to his left before flicking a pretty pass to Wesley.
“It’s just really nice to come back and get to finish a drive like that, get the first touchdown of the season,” Childers said. “I felt the guy coming up a little bit there, so I just stepped up in the pocket and got out quick. The guy didn’t really run as fast as he could – kind of loafing a little bit – and I saw an opening to the left, and he was wide open, so I just have him a touch pass.”
Iowa’s running game sparked the second-half surge, as the Hawkeyes ran for 209 yards in the game, and outgained the Huskies 352-211.
With the win, coach Kirk Ferentz passed the legendary Hayden Fry – who originally hired Ferentz as an offensive line coach at Iowa in 1981 – for first place on the Iowa all-time wins list.
The first touchdown came on a play-action pass to preseason All-American tight end Noah Fant on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line.
That gave the Hawkeyes (1-0) a 10-0 lead with 7:20 left in the third, and capped a 7-play, 58-yard drive that started with a 15-yard illegal block on Iowa that negated a huge run play.
After NIU’s third three-and-out of the half, Iowa covered 46 yards in 5 plays, highlighted by Toren Young’s 24-yard run. Ivory Kelly-Martin went in from 2 yards out with 2:41 to play in the third.
The Huskies (0-1) picked up their first first down of the half on the next drive, but that ended with a strip-sack of quarterback Marcus Childers by Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa. Young capped a 26-yard drive with a 6-yard TD run on the sixth play for a 24-0 lead.
After the teams traded punts, NIU took over at its own 1-yard line, and Amani Hooker picked up a safety for the Hawkeye defense. Iowa then tacked on another TD after the NIU free kick, as backup quarterback Peyton Mansell snuck in from 1 yard out to make it 33-0 with 6:52 to play.
“Coach Ferentz always talks about playing team football,” Stanley said. “If the offense is struggling, we know the defense will have our backs, and vice versa. They did a great all game, and it helped us out all game.”
NIU managed just 65 total net yards in the second half, and netted one first down until midway through the fourth quarter. Their touchdown drive went 75 yards, and contained five of those first downs. NIU had five three-and-outs in its seven second-half possessions.
“They definitely were coming out a little harder in the second half, and they got after us,” Childers said. “Their defensive line got after our O-line, and we just didn’t capitalize on some third-and-mediums and third-and-shorts.”
The first half was all about missed opportunities for the Huskies.
NIU started out in good shape, as Wesley blocked Iowa’s first punt after a long third-down pass was dropped by Fant. But Andrew Gantz missed a 33-yard field goal attempt wide left.
After the Huskie defense forced another three-and-out, it bent but didn’t break on the third series, as Albert Smalls intercepted Stanley inside the NIU 10-yard line to snuff out Iowa’s first scoring opportunity.
The offense was moving the ball on the ground, but seemed to stall around midfield. The Huskies ran for 62 yards in the first quarter, but one drive ended with a pair of sacks, and another with a Hooker interception of a pass intended for DeKalb native Cole Tucker inside the Iowa 10-yard line with 1:26 left in the first half.
But NIU forced a three-and-out, and Tucker fielded Colten Rastetter’s pooch punt at the Iowa 45 with 23 seconds left before the break. Two plays later, Childers connected with Tucker for 13 yards to the Iowa 32, then Childers spiked the ball with 6 seconds left to set up a 49-yard field goal attempt for Gantz.
But this one was wide left as well, keeping the Huskies off the scoreboard.