FINAL SCORE: Iowa 33 Northern Illinois 7
After an atrocious half of football offensively against Northern Illinois to kick off the 2018 season, Iowa’s running game found its groove in the second half behind the three-headed monster of Toren Young, Ivory Kelly-Martin, and Mekhi Sargent, thanks in part to an offensive line that wore down its opponent en route to a 33-7 victory.
The Hawkeye defense was dominant from start to finish. NIU’s only score game against Iowa’s backups with two minutes left in the game. It was an A+ effort from a defense that came into the season with some major question marks at linebacker and in the secondary.
Inconsistent Quarterback Play
But (there’s always a “but,” isn’t there?) Iowa has a major issue that no one seems to want to talk about: Quarterback play. Nate Stanley, to put things nicely, didn’t exactly play like Tom Brady out there. His performance was more like post-fat JaMarcus Russell.
Stanley was a pedestrian 11-23 passing for 108 yards, a touchdown and a pick. To his credit, Iowa’s wide receivers, most notably Brandon Smith, didn’t help him out much. But he made a handful of WTF throws.
On Iowa’s first possession, tight end Noah Fant dropped a sure touchdown pass on a nice deep ball thrown by Stanley. That was the only drop that wasn’t at least partially caused by an under or over-thrown ball from Stanley.
Every quarterback has a bad game from time to time. But it’s been happening far too often for Iowa’s signal caller. Since his impressive five-touchdown performance against Ohio State on November 4, Stanley is 56-115 passing (48.7 percent) for 616 yards in five games (123.2 YPG). Iowa is 3-2 over that period and is lucky to have won the Pinstripe Bowl against Boston College.
For Iowa to have any chance to contend for a Big Ten West title, they need consistently solid play from a quarterback who has been consistently inconsistent since becoming a starter after the 2016 season.
With a potent running game, he doesn’t have to be Vince Young. Heck, he doesn’t even have to be Drew Tate. But a 50 percent completion rate and 120 yards per game isn’t going to cut it, not even against a weak schedule.
Overall Grades Versus Northern Illinois
The season opener was an overall success for the Hawkeyes, especially on the defensive side. With two starting offensive tackles out, I expected the team to struggle moving the ball. And, for one half, that was an accurate prediction. In the second half, the offensive line started to dominate and Iowa’s running game took control.
Quarterback: D, Running backs: B, Offensive line: B, Wide receivers: F, Tight ends: B+, Defensive line: A, Linebackers: C, Secondary: B, Offensive play calling: B, Special teams: C, Overall: B-
Many of these grades are different from what they would have been at halftime. For example, the offensive line wasn’t effective in the first half and would have graded out as a C- but stepped it up in the second half.
The defensive line stood out more than any unit on the team, which isn’t a surprise. This is the deepest and most experience d-line in the country. AJ Epenesa showed why he was a five-star recruit, Anthony Nelson got pressure on the quarterback a few times, and the defense didn’t allow Marcus Childers much time to throw.
I was disappointed in the play of linebacker Amani Jones, a player I heard was impressive in spring and summer camp. He was really the only weak link on the defense yesterday. I felt everyone else, including Iowa’s other two new starting linebackers (Nick Niemann and Kristian Welch) played fundamentally sound football.
Special teams was spotty, although it was nice to see Colten Rastetter have a strong day punting (53.8 YPP) after a terrible season last year. But a blocked punt and two kickoff penalties can’t happen again.
Offensive Player of the Game
The offense only mustered up 353 yards against a mediocre defense, so there weren’t any true stars on that side of the ball. But I’ll give it to Toren Young who had 84 yards rushing on just eight carries, including an impressive 40-yard scamper that led to Iowa’s first touchdown.
Defensive Player of the Game
Contrary to the offense, there are many players to choose from for this award. I’ll go with linebacker Kristian Welch. He had 11 tackles and a sack in his first career start. I look forward to seeing what type of player he’s going become as he gains more experience.
*What the heck was up with NIU coach Rod Carey calling timeouts with two minutes remaining as Iowa was trying to run out the clock? The game was over early in the 4th quarter. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a coach pull that stunt. Best case scenario, had the Huskies gotten the ball back and drove down the field for one last touchdown, they lose by less than 20 points. Cool attempt at a moral victory, coach.
*I’m tired of hearing about how wide receiver Brandon Smith is so athletic and talented. Until he shows me something on the field, I wish the Iowa football media would quit hyping him up. He was a complete disaster on Saturday and showed absolutely nothing last year. Show, don’t tell.
*Props to Iowa Kirk Ferentz on becoming the school’s all-time winningest coach, surpassing his mentor Hayden Fry. It’s crazy to think he was hired my senior year in high school (1999) and is still there 20 years later. Even more insane is that in my lifetime, Iowa has had only two head football coaches. I’m 38-years-old. No other program in the country has had less than three coaches since I was born in 1980.
Bring on the Cyclones
It’s officially Beat State Week. Now that Northern Illinois is in the past, it’s time to focus on getting ready to beat Iowa State for the fourth consecutive season. Go Hawks!