Iowa Football: Ugly Win Not as Bad as It Looked
In what seemed like a brazen homage to the historically pedestrian offense of the franchise that calls Solider Field home, the Iowa passing game demonstrated Bears-like ineptitude, but managed to escape Chicago with an 18-17 win over Northern Illinois.
When you spend the better part of six months consuming information and making projections, it's natural to carry lofty expectations into the first week of the season. When your favorite team's performance on the field fails to meet those expectations, frustration sets in. When the game in question is a four-alarm dumpster fire, fans freak out.
But with ample time to self-medicate and chance to sleep on it, there are actually some positive takeaways from Saturday's close call.
Here are five reasons for Iowa fans to take a deep breath and step back from the ledge.
Northern Illinois Is Actually Good
You know how you feel when condescending SEC fans act like your team doesn't belong on the field with them? That's how fans of MAC teams feel all the time.
In the build-up to Saturday's game, Iowa was marked as a potential upset victim. Iowa fans (and the occasional Bleacher Report know-it-all) responded by pointing out the many reasons that was ridiculous. In hindsight, maybe the concept wasn't so outrageous.
Northern Illinois came into Solider Field with the longest active winning streak in FBS, and it returned nearly every defensive starter from last season's 11-win team. The experienced defense was on top of their game against Iowa, and it deserves a lot of respect for its scheme and the unrelenting pressure it put on the Hawkeyes, leading to six sacks.
NIU is well-coached, and as its young offensive unit gains experience and continuity, it will be a force to be reckoned with in the MAC.
Damon Bullock Emerged as the Running Back Iowa Badly Needed
By completing pregame warmups without being arrested or having one of his knees explode, Damon Bullock surpassed the amended expectations Iowa fans hold for the running back position.
By carrying the ball 30 times for 150 yards and the game-winning touchdown, he established himself as the player on the roster most likely to have a pizza named after him in Iowa City.
Iowa's offense being rendered one-dimensional was not a surprise, but the running game being the effective dimension was utterly shocking. Do not let your disappointment with the passing game overshadow the excitement of a potential bell-cow running back emerging.
Kirk Ferentz was expected to split carries between three running backs on Saturday. That is the type of strategy a team uses when it isn't sure what it has at a given position. The fact that Bullock took ownership of the position should help the Iowa coaching staff sleep a little better at night.
Iowa's Defense Came Up Big When It Counted
The Iowa defense was a unit that provided more questions than answers heading into Chicago. It was difficult to predict what the Hawkeyes would get out of this group, especially the inexperienced defensive line. What they got were numerous three-and-outs and huge stops in crucial situations, which allowed Iowa to stay within striking distance.
NIU QB Jordan Lynch broke a 73-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter. That play accounted for almost half of NIU's rushing yards on the day. The Iowa defense held the Huskies to 201 total yards of offense, including Lynch's long touchdown run.
The defense is young, but in what turned out to be a pressure-filled season opener, it exceeded expectations. If it continues to improve and build on a very solid first effort, it should be enough to keep Iowa in most games.
James Vandenberg Gets to Play at Home Until October 13
White jerseys make James Vandenberg a less effective quarterback. That's not my theory; it's science.
Vandenberg's passer efficiency rating is 41 points higher at home than on the road, and he has thrown 17 of his 25 touchdowns in Kinnick Stadium. He's not incapable of playing well on the road—he had a great game at Purdue last season and stepped into a huge game in Columbus as a freshman and performed admirably—he just doesn't do it very often.
Luckily for Iowa, its next four games are at home. This should give the offense plenty of time to gel in a comfortable environment. And it better, because on October 13, it faces William Gholston and the Michigan State defense in East Lansing.
That is assuming Gholston isn't suspended for unsportsmanlike indiscretions by then. A bold assumption since Gholston is a dirty cheap-shot machine. Not my theory; that's also science.
It's a W!
You know the best part about winning ugly? Winning!
It may not have been pretty. It may have exposed a couple weaknesses. It may cause nervousness as you look ahead on the schedule. But the check mark goes in the W column. Not every team is so lucky after an underwhelming performance.
So rediscover your resting heart rate, Hawkeye fans. Enjoy the silver lining. Take solace in the fact the coaching staff has very specific issues to address, and trust in their ability to do so.
More importantly, get ready for Iowa State. The winner stays undefeated.