CHICAGO (AP) — Leading for most of the game, Northern Illinois gave Iowa all it could handle. It just wasn’t quite enough.
Damon Bullock ran for 150 yards and scored on a late 23-yard run to lead Iowa to an 18-17 victory over the Huskies in the teams’ season opener on Saturday.
“We came out against Iowa, who I thought had one of the best defenses in the Big Ten, and there’s tons of stuff and we’ll watch the film and learn from it,” quarterback Jordan Lynch said. “But I thought we did a good job. A few plays didn’t fall in the right hands at times.”
The reigning Mid-American Conference champions were poised to pull this one out and win for the third time in its last six games against a Big Ten team. But that changed in the closing minutes.
The Hawkeyes were down 17-12 when Bullock ran untouched around the left end to put them ahead by one. That happened after Iowa’s Greg Castillo downed a punt at the NIU 1. The ball wasn’t in the end zone even though Castillo’s body was. So rather than a touchback, Northern Illinois was pinned at its goal line.
Rather than take a safety, Northern Illinois punted. Iowa took over on the 24 and Bullock ran it in on third-and-9. The 2-point conversation failed, but the defense held its ground.
“One of the coaches asked me that,” Huskies coach Dave Doeren said about possibly taking a safety with a five-point lead. “I don’t know how that would have helped us or not helped us. I hate giving points up in a situation like that. … Possibly, we could have done that. It’s tough when you’re in that situation to put points on the board.”
For most of the game, the Huskies were in good shape.
Lynch threw for just 54 yards in his first start as Northern Illinois’ quarterback but ran for 119. That included a 73-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter to give the Huskies a 17-9 lead, after his fumble on the first drive of the half led to a field goal for Iowa.
Bullock came up big, carrying 30 times, with the Hawkeyes’ running back rotation depleted, and James Vandenberg taking a beating at quarterback. He was sacked six times and threw for 129 yards, and the offense stalled several times when it had shots at the end zone.
With each miss, the Hawkeyes’ frustration grew. But they came out on top thanks to that big run by Bullock. The Hawkeyes had used that play several times and Vandenberg thought they had come to some big gains.
This time, it happened. Doeren agreed and even acknowledged his players might have been caught off guard on the play.
The Hawkeyes are eyeing a big jump after two frustrating seasons following the 2009 Orange Bowl season. A 15-11 record during that stretch and a pair of 4-4 finishes in the Big Ten simply didn’t sit well, and the Hawkeyes are looking for more.
They brought in longtime Texas coordinator Greg Davis to spruce up an offense that had become so predictable by the end of last season, but fans who were hoping to see a little more flash didn’t exactly get that.
Instead, the Hawkeyes pounded the ball even though five players expected to compete for carries were not on the field. And they came up short a few too many times when they had shots at the end zone.
Take this sequence early in the second half.
Trailing by four, Iowa took over on the NIU 14 after Joe Gaglione stripped Lynch of the ball on the first drive of the half. But instead of a touchdown to take the lead, the Hawkeyes settled for a field goal by Mike Meyer after they converted a fourth down at the 5 and stalled at the 3.
Worse for Iowa, Aidan Conlon sprung Lynch with a block on the next possession for a 73-yard touchdown run up the right side that bumped Northern Illinois’ lead to 17-9. Another threat early in the fourth quarter ended with a field goal for Iowa — a 50-yarder by Meyer after Vandenberg was sacked for a 10-yard loss by Sean Evans with the ball on the 26.
“There were things that were disappointing at times, and those are things that are correctable with time, hopefully,” coach Kirk Ferentz said. “But obviously there were a lot of good things that took place out there.”
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