Iowa learned a painful lesson Saturday: it's how you start and how you finish.
After a sluggish start, the Hawkeyes did a lot of good things in the second and third quarters, and the early part of the fourth, in Saturday's season opener against Northern Illinois. Quarterback Jake Rudock made some big throws in his collegiate debut, and a defense led by three senior linebackers held Huskies star Jordan Lynch in check.
But mental and physical breakdowns on both sides of the ball doomed Iowa down the stretch, as Northern Illinois rallied for a 30-27 win at steamy Kinnick Stadium. Mathew Sims' 36-yard field goal with four seconds left sealed it for NIU as Rod Carey recorded his first career coaching win.
This one will sting for a while for Iowa, which really needed something to go its way following a long and mostly gloomy offseason.
The Hawkeyes stumbled out of the gate but survived by scoring 17 unanswered points to take control midway through the game. Linebacker Christian Kirksey turned the momentum with a forced fumble, scoop and 48-yard touchdown return late in the first quarter. Rudock completed 13 of 21 attempts for 188 yards and a touchdown in the first half, and Iowa's defense began bottling up Lynch (56 rush yards on 22 carries) and his Wildcat-like, inside zone rushing attack.
But Iowa suffered a breakdown midway through the fourth, as a blown coverage allowed Lynch to find Da'Ron Brown wide open for a 33-yard score with 5:05 remaining. Lynch ended up hurting Iowa much more with his arm (275 pass yards, 3 TDs) than his legs.
Even then, the Hawkeyes appeared to be in good position to win as Rudock led the offense inside NIU territory. Then, on third-and-9 from the 44-yard line, offensive coordinator Greg Davis made one of those calls that drive Iowa fans batty: a bubble screen. It predictably went for a yard.
After a season where Iowa consistently called third-down passes with no chance of reaching the marker, Davis should know better. He should rip the bubble screen out of his playbook. The swing pass, too. They don't work.
Iowa still had a decent chance after the defense forced a three-and-out, but Rudock finally showed his inexperience, telegraphing a throw that NIU's Jimmie Hall easily picked off. Three plays later, Sims split the uprights to give the Huskies the win.
There were some positives in this game for Kirk Ferentz's crew, but it's all about the bottom line. Iowa found a way to lose.
Last year's Iowa win against Northern Illinois proved to mean nothing for the Hawkeyes. I have a feeling today's loss will be much more significant for the Hawkeyes going forward.