IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa is starting to answer some of its offseason questions.
Hawkeyes linebackers, buoyed by a dominant line, looked at times like seasoned veterans in Saturday’s 33-7 win over Northern Illinois that gave coach Kirk Ferentz his record-setting 144th win at the school. The new cornerbacks, and their trio of inexperienced running backs, also looked ready.
Though the offensive line was up and down, that was to be expected of a unit missing two promising tackles who are set to return on Saturday against in-state rival Iowa State (0-0) after one-game suspensions.
The litany of drops in the passing game was troubling. But overall, the Hawkeyes made a positive first impression.
“I thought our guys did a really good job against a tough opponent,” Ferentz said. “I thought our guys played hard. I thought our guys played determined, and that allowed us to play through some bumps.”
For the first time in 20 years, Ferentz had three linebackers make their first career starts in the same game. Save for a few early hiccups, they played like they knew what they were doing.
Kristian Welch led the way with 11 tackles and a sack. Sycamore native Nick Niemann had four stops, including one for a loss, and Jack Hockaday came off the bench in relief of a struggling Amani Jones – who Ferentz said was overly excited in his debut – and had five tackles.
Hockaday, a Maroa-
Forsyth graduate, played so well that he earned the starting nod over Jones against the Cyclones.
“No matter how much experience you have, the first game of the year, there are some nerves,” defensive lineman Parker Hesse said. “The more time they spent out there as the game went on, they really progressed and we really started feeling more and more comfortable as a defense.”
Iowa’s rebuilt secondary took advantage of the strong play in front of them as well. The Hawkeyes allowed just 110 yards passing and a late touchdown that came long after the outcome had been decided.
“Our defensive line picked up the tempo, and it was like a trickle-down effect,” said safety Amani Hooker, who picked up an interception on Saturday. “It allowed us to get time to cover guys. The quarterback has to think. He’s getting pressured.”
Iowa’s offense took longer to get going, and it finished with just two runs longer than 10 yards in 48 tries. Both came from Toren Young, who responded to being dropped to the third string with 84 crucial yards on just eight carries.
Young, Ivory Kelly-Martin and Mekhi Sargent should be in position to improve on the 4.4 yards per carry they had against the Huskies with tackles Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs back from suspension, even though Iowa State’s defense figures to be a much stiffer test.
Junior Nate Stanley was just 11-of-23 passing for 108 yards, numbers that would’ve been much better had his receivers not dropped about a half-dozen balls.
The Hawkeyes rallied behind their running game and put up 30 points in the second half. But they’ll need both the running and passing game to be working to hold off a much-improved Iowa State.
“We had a rough start,” wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette said. “But we just put our heads down and went to work.”