It seemed as though karma had caught up with the Iowa Hawkeyes.
Ten months after Iowa kicked a field goal in the final seconds to upset No. 3 Penn State, Northern Iowa was lined up for a 39-yard field goal, to try to upset the No. 22 Hawkeyes in Iowa City.
Iowa, still trying to work through injuries and first game kinks, didn't play well all game long, but, like any good team, stepped up in the clutch and blocked the field goal.
Linebacker Jeremiah Hunter went to pick up the ball, but his teammates yelled at him to stay away and tackled the UNI player who eventually picked it up. The Hawkeyes celebrated, thinking they just needed to kneel the ball to win. But the celebration was premature.
The officials ruled that by some obscure rule, since it was first down and the ball never crossed the line of scrimmage, the Panthers would be able to re-kick, even though the replay showed that the ball bounced in front of the line.
Hunter was furious. It seemed the ref's call had finally sparked the Hawkeyes' anger, a spark that they needed all game long. But fair or not, Northern Iowa again lined up for a 39-yarder. And this time, Hunter redeemed himself, blocking the kick again.
"I was praying the whole time, like 'This is why I'm out here," Hunter said. "I was just focused on getting that block the second time."
In all truth, the game never should have come down to two field goal blocks. While Northern Iowa is a great team that could probably beat at least 50 FBS teams on a consistent basis, Iowa wasn't at their best. It was largely due to a sluggish start and horrible offensive play in the first half.
Starting running back Paki O'Meara was never able to prove himself and Ricky Stanzi couldn't get into a rhythm. This allowed the Panthers to go into the locker room up 10-3.
But the Iowa offense came to life in the second half. After a fumble early in the half, Ricky Stanzi came back to throw for 242 yards and a touchdown and finally showcased the potential he showed last season, when he led the Hawkeyes to six wins in their final seven games.
The Hawkeyes went back to the simple play action passes that won them six out of seven games to end 2008. Stanzi also has many more targets to work with this season.
Converted quarterback Marvin McNutt looked like the stud the Hawkeye coaches had raved about and tight end Tony Moeaki had one of the best games of his career, catching 10 passes for 83 yards and a touchdown.
The offensive line was off and on as well, but, for the most part, provided pretty big holes for the running game. Isn't this odd, you may ask, for a unit that is supposed to rank at the top of the nation?
The reason for the average play is that All-Big Ten candidates Kyle Calloway and Julian Vandervelde were out. They will be back next week against Iowa State and should help add stability in the trenches.
The running game also made have found an answer after Jewel Hampton's season ending injury. But starter Paki O'Meara wasn't it. Adam Robinson, a redshirt freshman from Des Moines, had an impressive game.
He showed tremendous speed and broke through plenty of defenders. He rushed for 63 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries, which is good considering he barely played in the first half.
Paul Chaney Jr. also had a good day, showcasing his athleticism and speed. He had a huge gain on a reverse play. He also had a 44-yard touchdown catch that was called back because of a holding penalty.
The defense looked solid, but the pass defense definitely needs to go back to last year's form, as they allowed UNI to march 91 yards for a touchdown and get in position for the blocked field goal. Other than those two drives, though, they were very tough. But that toughness needs to be there all game if Iowa wants a shot at the Big Ten title.
The main defensive question heading into Saturday's game was how Iowa would respond to the loss of Mitch King and Matt Kroul. But the defensive line proved that they haven't lost a step.
The line was outstanding and Karl Klug proved why he is good enough to replace King and Kroul, as he pressured UNI quarterback Pat Grace all day. Christian Ballard was also very impressive on the inside and he sacked Grace or forced him to throw the ball away at least five times throughout the game.
The ends were solid, as predicted, and Adrian Clayborn was not only a factor in the run game, but he also dropped back in coverage and tipped away a possible touchdown pass.
Minus the sluggish start, which was likely only due to first game jitters, the one thing that Iowa needs to work on is finishing drives. The stats were all good in the second half, and Iowa seems to have found their answer at running back and on the defensive line, but the Hawkeyes need to learn how to turn field goals and missed field goals into touchdowns.
If the offense can get that figured out, they should have no problem walking into Happy Valley 3-0.
"Hey, we won the game," said quarterback Ricky Stanzi. "That's all it's going to say on the stat sheet. But there's no doubt we have some things we need to work on."
And that they do. But if coach Kirk Ferentz can get the early season kinks worked out, it looks like Iowa will have a very solid team in 2009.
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