Huskies drop season opener to Hawkeyes

By Matt Hopkinson

For NIU football, the first home game was a story of two halves, or, more realistically, three and a half quarters.

The Huskies (0-1) suffered a heartbreaking defeat at the hands of Iowa (1-0) by a score of 18-17, in the season opener at Soldier Field in front of 52,117 people, with an overwhelming majority of those from Hawkeye nation.

“I’m proud to be their coach the way they played,” said NIU head coach Dave Doeren. “I thought we prepared the right way. I thought we never flinched in the game. It’s tough when you invest that much, put that much on the table, and play that hard to come away with a loss, it hurts.”

The real story of the game could be pinned on time of possession. Iowa controlled the ball for 38:42 to just 21:18 for NIU.

Despite this large disparity in time and plays run (82-52 Iowa’s edge), NIU held the lead in the game for all but the final two minutes, thanks to a stifling and timely defense.

The defense for the Huskies were able to force Iowa into going 8-18 on third downs, sack the quarterback six times, and turn four would-be touchdown drives into field goal attempts, holding Iowa to just six points in the first half.

NIU scored ten points in the first half on a touchdown by freshman running back Keith Harris on his first career carry. NIU was also able to knock in a field goal in the second quarter, set up by a highlight reel pass from junior quarterback Jordan Lynch to senior Martel Moore. Moore went from full sprint to laying out his body parallel to the field and made the reception, good enough for 25 yards and the longest pass play in the game.

Aside from the 25 yard pass, however, the Huskies featured an offense based mostly on the run, primarily revolving around Lynch.

“He’s a great competitor, a winner,” said Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz. “They did a good job spreading us out and running him.”

While the ultimate highlight for Lynch came on a third quarter 73-yard touchdown run, the gameplan to continually feed Lynch may have hampered the ability of NIU to maintain their drives late in the game, as, in total, Lynch was only able to complete 6-16 passes for a mere 54 yards. Compared to his 136 yards on the ground, it’s easy to see where the Huskies became predictable.

Despite all the ball control statistics against them, the final five minutes of the game proved to be the decisive moment for NIU. Iowa was able to pull off a 50-yard punt and down the ball within the five yard line, pinning NIU against its own end zone. Iowa was then able to stalemate NIU into punting, giving Iowa possession on the 24 yard line. On 3rd and 8, this is when running back Damon Bullock and Iowa hit pay-dirt with their first and only touchdown.

“Great play at an opportune moment,” Ferentz said. “He carried the load for us all day, played nearly the entire game, did a lot of good things for us.”

NIU had all timeouts remaining and 2:30 left on the clock to make one last drive to attempt a victory. On the first play of the drive, Lynch fumbled the shotgun snap but was able to fall on it. The next three ensuing plays could not amount to converting a first down, with the final play of the game a failed pass attempt that hit the grass at the receiver’s feet.

“I was hoping we could at least get some drives together,” Doeren said. “That was the main thing: If we could just put together a drive, whether it got points or not. There’s a couple times we could have busted the doors open but didn’t. If you look at the film, there’s probably 15 plays that if we make it could have won us the game. The key is just making one of those plays.”

Doeren acknowledged the defensive presence in the game, but also admitted to needing even more from his corps that spent more than half the game on the field.

“The one disappointment I had in the defense is that we didn’t create a takeaway in the second half,” Doeren said. “It’s just hard to get going when you’re always playing on a short field.”

While the end result wasn’t what they wanted, or what it appeared was going to be through nearly the whole game, there were many encouraging sights. The young and inexperienced offensive line held their own, only allowing two sacks in the game, and were able to make holes for NIU to gain 147 yards on the ground. Lynch looked capable of providing a spark with his feet in the game, but did not show a consistent ability to convert the pass in his limited attempts.

The real stand-out was the defense, as they nearly were able to hold on and preserve a victory despite the incredible amount of time wearing on them throughout.

Senior defensive end Sean Progar knows, however, that one game does not a season make.

“I’ve played in a lot of games here,” Progar said. “The biggest thing I’ve learned is that a team will make it’s biggest leap from game one to game two. We’re going to watch tape, take mistakes off the film, and take it out on the next team, and we’re just going to rally for the rest of the season.”