Ringed by skyscrapers half-obscured by a low ceiling of gray swirling over Chicago's vaulted skyline, Iowa sophomore running back Damon Bullock stretched an off-tackle run to the outside and went 23-yards swiftly to the corner of the end-zone for a Hawkeyes' touchdown.
He was met by a thundering cheer from the gold-decked mass that descended on Soldier Field for the game against Northern Illinois, and comprised a commanding majority of the 52,117 in attendance.
The storm clouds were the dispersed remnants of Hurricane Isaac. They'd migrated up the plains and prairies from the Gulf of Mexico and settled ominously over the city that morning. The rain stayed in the clouds, somehow, but it was hot and muggy all afternoon.
"I just saw daylight and ran as fast as I could," said Bullock in the stadium tunnel after the game. "It was frustrating not scoring. Every time we'd get close we couldn't punch it in. We just wanted to help our defense out. Everybody was frustrated, but we found a way to get it in."
The touchdown run came on a 3rd and seven, the most critical snap of the game with 2:15 remaining to play, and put Iowa ahead of Northern Illinois for the first time in the second half, 18-17.
"It was a play we'd talked about at half-time, based on something we'd seen in the second quarter," said head coach Kirk Ferentz during the post-game press conference. "Greg [Davis] pulled it out of his pocket at an opportune moment. That was a huge play, because clearly up until that moment we had issues getting into the end zone."
Bullock ran 30 times for 150 yards and the game winning touchdown in the first start of his college career. There were a lot of young players and new starters on the field for Iowa. It is the youngest team Ferentz has had in 14 seasons as head coach.
"Bullock's a very young player," said Ferentz. "I didn't know what to expect. For him to play almost the entire game; it was muggy, I was worried about that. He'll get better, but he did a lot of good things. Missed a couple of reads, missed a couple of protections, but a good first step for him, and finishing up in a strong fashion."
The football had not matched the picturesqueness of the Lake Michigan shoreline, with the campus of museums and the sailboat masts bobbing in Burnham Harbor beyond the stadium. In stark contrast, both teams passing games looked primitive and underdeveloped. The running games, defenses, and special teams had determined the outcome.
The Hawkeyes' game winning drive had been set-up by a fourth quarter punt, dapperly dropped down inside the five yard line by former quarterback John Weinke. The ball was touched dead by Greg Castillo, a back-up cornerback, inside of NIU's 1 yard line.
"Contributions from a guy like John, a fifth year senior, he was competing for that punting job, lost it to Conner [Kornbrath], so I thought we'd divide the labor a little bit," said Ferentz. "And then Castillo, a fifth year senior, goes down there and keeps it out of the end zone. Those things aren't obvious, but they're good contributions going forward, we're going to need those all season long."
There had been some confusion in the press box regarding the ruling. The lads went back-and-forth in pontificating fashion on the protocol. Castillo had slid into the end zone as he knocked the football dead outside the goal-line.
The ball did not break the end zone plane, but Castillo's body clearly had. He was lying on the paint with his arm out, his hand stopping the ball from rolling in with him.
The rule in college football states that a player does not have to settle himself outside the end zone before touching a ball dead. In the NFL, a player must leave the end zone and re-establish himself in the field of play before making contact, or the punt is called a touchback.
That wisdom did not mollify the behemoth I encountered in the CTA train tunnel downtown after the game. He was an enormous, despondent man dragging an empty cooler thuddingly down the stairs in the midst of a large crowd of people. His girlfriend walked along behind him with her head hung in embarrassment, not for the loss, but for the way her suitor was taking it.
I'd forgotten for a moment that no good deed goes unpunished. I'd watched him abuse his cooler down a bank of 25 steps, marveling at the resilience of plastic, and making a mental picture never to embarrass my girlfriend that way. At the bottom near the tracks the lid had popped off. Neither of them had noticed it and both slunk all the way to the far end of the station platform.
I gathered up the lid and walked it over to him. I'd known bad losses in my day.
He stared blankly, with a powerful smell of booze wafting out of him. He was red-eyed and sweated big dark spots through the Northern Illinois t-shirt he wore. It had been a long afternoon in the humid heat. I could see he was studying my press credential, which was white and red and said nothing more than "Media" on it. I wasn't dressed in either teams' colors.
"Hey, what happened with your team out there?" he'd wanted to know.
"My team? I was covering the whole game," I'd said. "Who do you think I'm for?"
"Yeah, they sent you out here from Iowa to watch it. What are you going to write?"
"That Iowa won."
"Yeah, but they didn't dominate it. They aren't going to have a good year."
"Where are you from then?"
I told him my newspapers; he'd never heard of them. I got him out a business card.
"I'm gonna check you out," he said, studying it. "I went to Northern, I was around last year, that punt was a touchback. The ball, the ball went across."
"Not the ball, the man went across."
He was getting confused and looking up at the ceiling.
"You can't touch the ball from the end zone," he said. "Unless that rule changed. Iowa shouldn't have won."
"Probably not, but what are you going to do? That's how the game goes."
The punt pinning Northern Illinois against their goal line was not the end of the game. Iowa's defense had stuffed NIU on three consecutive plays, and pressured the punter into a short, poor kick from the back edge of the end zone that Micah Hyde brought back to NIU's 24 yard line. Then Bullock had to make his run.
The train came noisily down the tunnel. He looked like he wanted an apology for having had his afternoon ruined. His girlfriend had retreated to the wall at the end of the platform and was watching under her eyebrows, obviously worried this drunk, sulking giant would lose his cool. She looked like she'd gotten a dose, or witnessed something ugly already.
"You guys will be alright," I said. "Lot of games left. Better than I thought you'd be."
He shook my hand, muttering something about beating Toledo, and slunk away.
The Huskies' junior quarterback, Jordan Lynch, finished the game 6 of 16 passing for 54-yards. Lynch led the Huskies in rushing attempts and yards, too, with 18 carries for 119. He'd collected 73 of them at once on a 3rd and eight draw he'd galloped down the sideline with for a touchdown early in the third. The scoring run put Northern ahead 17-9 with 9:43 to play in the quarter.
Northern's most effective third down play by far was that five wide receiver set from which Lynch ran a designed quarterback run through the gaps in the stretched-out defense. They'd used the play to pick-up three third downs of more than six yards over the course of the game, and attempted the play on several others.
The Huskies' second leading rusher was junior running back Leighton Settle, who ran 10 times for 33 yards. Northern Illinois finished with 201 yards of combined offense. No receiver for NIU had more than 39-yards worth of catches.
Iowa had struggled to throw, and scoring touchdowns looked like a Sisyphean task until the very end. It looked every bit the first game it was. It's been this way at Iowa a long time, though. Not the scoring, but the fact that Ferentz operates a developmental program, and his teams have almost without fail improved enormously as their seasons progressed.
"I was proud of the guys, proud of the effort," said Ferentz. "The goal was to come into the game, play hard and win the game, and we did that. A lot of things were disappointing at times, but those things are correctable, hopefully, with time."
A good example of Iowa's offensive jam-up could be seen after Lynch had been just flattened on a backside rush by Iowa end Joe Gaglione in the third quarter. The football popped loose like a tooth had been punched out and went end-over-end to the turf. Carl Davis recovered it for the Hawkeyes at NIU's 14 yard line.
Iowa's offense ran three plays at nearly the gates of Northern's end zone, and settled for a field goal. It was that kind of a day.
"We had a tough time protecting, a tough time getting open, and it didn't seem like we were in sync," said Ferentz. "We'll improve as we go along."
The positive that came of it for the Hawkeyes was that place kicker Mike Meyers tied two school records with four made field goals and five attempts. If he'd missed even one more, the Bullock touchdown would not have been enough to win.
"I think we shot ourselves in the foot," said quarterback James Vandenburg afterward. "They didn't do a whole lot of things that were out of sorts, but we weren't able to execute against them. That's obviously gotta get better and this is just a stepping stone."
NIU's defensive line—constituted of three seniors and one junior—played well against Iowa's mostly new offensive line. Northern Illinois tallied six sacks and got into Vandenburg's face regularly.
The usual thing had happened in Iowa City after last season: three linemen set sail for the NFL. Two were drafted—tackle Riley Reiff was the 23rd player taken in the entire draft—and a third, Marcus Zusevics, would have been drafted, but he tore a pectoral muscle at the NFL Combine. He was signed as an un-drafted free agent by the New England Patriots.
Vandenburg had looked jittery on nearly every throw he made in new offensive coordinator Greg Davis's scheme. Most of the routes were truncated, and on many plays he'd locked onto his primary target and threw there no matter what. There were several backside routes broke wide open that Vandenburg didn't see.
These were tendencies he showed last year when he threw for 3,022 yards, and 25 touchdowns against seven interceptions, but really battled to complete passes against strong, cohesive units. On Saturday he finished 21 of 33 for 129 yards with no touchdowns, but no interceptions either. His average completion yardage was 3.9, which was less than the yards per rush.
Ferentz was positive about Vandbenberg, too. He talked to Marc Morehouse of the Sioux City Gazette on September 4. "I think [Vandenberg] played well. He led the team and we won the game, that is the objective. It just [the completion average stat] says we didn't throw the ball as well as we wanted to. That is all it says. I am glad he is our quarterback. I am glad he is our quarterback for at least 11 more games."
"You always want to go out in a road game and get the win," said senior cornerback Micah Hyde, who has been in the grinder on many fall Saturdays. "That's the most important thing. It's early in the season, you never know what could happen. We knew this was going to be a hard fought game and we got the win."