The Iowa Hawkeyes showed some flashes in their opener that didn't exist in 2012, but there were enough deficiencies to produce a 30-27 loss to the Northern Illinois Huskies.
After a slow start that included four empty-handed drives, Christian Kirksey jump-started Iowa's momentum by leveling Luke Eakes, forcing a fumble and returning it for a touchdown. The offense came alive, racked up over 300 yards in the first half and took a 24-17 lead into halftime.
Then everything slowly went south. The Hawkeyes had too many defensive breakdowns, couldn't muster enough points and made the crucial mistakes.
Even though the Hawkeyes will have a larger margin of error, being 24.5-point favorites against the Missouri State Bears per Vegas Insider, there are plenty of things Iowa can improve on to ensure the team gets its first win of the season. They come offensively, defensively and on special teams.
For his first collegiate start, Jake Rudock was fairly impressive.
He hit just under 57 percent of his passes to nine different Hawkeyes, had good awareness in the pocket by taking zero sacks and occasionally showed off his arm strength. Even on his touchdown run, he stood in the pocket, rolled to his left while keeping his eyes downfield and took off at the appropriate time.
However, Rudock telegraphed a handful of his pass attempts, and the Northern Illinois defense picked off the sophomore quarterback twice. And it could have been worse.
Yes, one of the interceptions was due to Rudock getting hit as he was throwing, but there were a few passes that had "pick-six" written all over them. Most of these came on east-and-west throws that involved an out route or some type of screen play.
The close calls eventually caught up with Rudock at a bad time. On the first play of the drive with 1:24 remaining in the game, senior safety Jimmie Ward intercepted the Iowa quarterback and took the ball into Hawkeyes territory, which led to the NIU game-winning field goal.
Nevertheless, Rudock showed he was in control, knew the offense and provided sparks that didn't exist last year. As Rudock spends more time with the first-string offense in practice and develops chemistry with the receivers, it should be easier for him to look defenders off his intended target.
Watch Rudock's progression in his reads on Saturday.
The Hawkeyes ran the ball effectively against the Northern Illinois defense by totaling 202 yards on 43 carries for a 4.9-yard average.
But there were several instances where the Huskies stood them up at the line. A good chunk of those came when Iowa quickly snapped the ball.
It's not that the no-huddle failed, because the Iowa players were on the same page most of the time and proved they could move the ball. It's that the hurry-up was predictable, the Huskies knew a run between the tackles was coming and the Iowa offensive line couldn't take over.
There's a significant difference between no-huddle and hurry-up.
It's a wise move to pick up the tempo and catch the defense off guard after a big play or while the unit is trying to substitute. But the Iowa offensive line has to get a better push, and there has to at least be a little more diversity.
This is somewhat of a new concept for the Hawkeyes, so it'll take some time for things to come together. Missouri State should be a good opponent for improvement.
The one thing Iowa lacked in 2012 was a deep threat, but Damond Powell appears to be the answer to that in 2013.
Jordan Cotton also has the speed to stretch the field, but Powell seems to be the specialist. Whenever Powell came into the game, the ball came his way.
It started on a positive note when Rudock hit the JUCO transfer on a 49-yard bomb out of Iowa's end zone to begin its fourth drive of the game.
Then after the Huskies offense went three-and-out and the Hawkeyes had the ball at midfield, Rudock was looking for Powell deep, but he was hit as he threw, and the ball wound up in the hands of NIU's Dechane Durante.
On the Hawkeyes' next series, they ran the ball twice for nine yards, and it looked like they were going to wait for the fourth quarter to begin.
But Powell came into the game as the lone receiver, and Rudock launched it his way. Perhaps he lost his footing, but the wide receiver slowed down in the middle of his route and the ball just sailed over Powell's head.
Powell's playing time may have been limited, but there was probably good reason for it. He's new to the team, may need work blocking downfield or could use improvements in his route running.
Although, each time he was in, he got excellent separation from the defender and could prove to be one of Iowa's greatest assets on offense. Not that Powell needs to be an every-down receiver, but he should be in the game a few more plays, even if he's used as a decoy.
If there's one nasty pattern to point to in the Hawkeyes' recent trend of close losses, it's that they can't get off the field on third down.
In 2012, Iowa gave up first downs 43.43 percent of the time on third down, which ranked 87th in the NCAA and was last in the Big Ten.
Against Northern Illinois, the Hawkeyes held the Huskies to 7-of-20 on third-down conversions, but NIU was 2-of-3 on fourth down.
Iowa hasn't been much of a blitzing team under Kirk Ferentz, but when the Hawkeyes came after Jordan Lynch, they were effective. No sacks were recorded, but the pressure forced Lynch to throw the ball away or dump the ball off short of the first-down marker.
Getting after the quarterback with just the front four was an issue for the Hawkeyes last season, and that was evident against the Huskies. Lynch missed a handful of throws, although he had all the time in the world when Iowa dropped seven back and he found plenty of gaps in the defense.
Iowa's defensive line can't be as inefficient as it was last year, and it must give a stronger performance against the Bears than it did last week. If it doesn't, the Hawkeyes will need to blitz more often.
Rudock Staring Down Receivers
With the exception of Mark Weisman's fumble in the first quarter, Iowa kept the mistakes relatively small in the first half.
But three huge errors in the second half eventually doomed the Hawkeyes.
First, the fake punt. Give credit to NIU for executing an option play out of the punt formation, but this play was devastating. The Huskies hadn't done much on their first three drives of the third quarter, and they were facing a 4th-and-5 at Iowa's 46-yard line.
Short distance to gain, ball at midfield and the offense was struggling—it was the perfect time for a fake. But the Hawkeyes couldn't stop it, and punter Tyler Wedel took the ball inside the 10-yard line.
That can't happen on your home field when the defense is on a roll.
The second mishap belongs to the secondary breakdown on Northern Illinois' game-tying touchdown. It was hot out and players were cramping, but Da'Ron Brown was wide open and B.J. Lowery didn't get over in time. Also according to Lowery in Dochterman's article, the cornerback has had cramping issues in the past.
With temperatures expected to be in the 90s against Missouri State, his status will be something to keep an eye on.
The last mistake, and most obvious, was Rudock's interception. According to Rudock in his postgame interview, his throw was a little behind the receiver and Jimmie Ward made a good play on the ball.
Be that as it may, the interception and an additional NIU first down set up Mathew Sims for his game-winning kick.
However, the good news for the Hawkeyes is that it's a nonconference game and they improved on some necessary areas. They ran 84 plays, stretched the field at times and had good balance between running and passing.
The matchup with Missouri State comes at an ideal time, and Iowa should be able to fix some of its issues it had in Week 1.