IOWA CITY, Iowa — Everybody has those days when you have a headache or an upset stomach and you can’t wait until your work day is over.
No big mistakes, no throwing up, no slurring of words. Just get through it, get home and get to bed.
Iowa football had one of those days at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday. There were injuries, there were penalties, and there were touchdowns overturned and called back. But the Hawkeyes avoided the killer mistake and persevered in a 31-14 win against North Texas.
If you’ve watched Iowa football over the years, you’ve seen those games that qualify as an illness. Some of them still cause fans to wince as if they recalled a car accident. Remember the last-second Central Michigan debacle back in 2012? How about the penalty-fest against Northwestern last season? Then, there’s the triple-dog-dare moment back in 2007 against Western Michigan.
Those games were the equivalent of a blown tire on the interstate on a queasy stomach. This game? It was parking the car in the garage, popping a couple of aspirin and putting on the comfy clothes. It all worked out in the end.
“The ones you’re citing the outcome didn’t come out so well, and at halftime, we decided we’re going to get going here, and we played better and didn’t leave the door open to be in that position where it might be a disappointing outcome,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.
The first half of Iowa’s game with North Texas was a combination of suck and yuck. The Hawkeyes chewed up half of the first quarter on a 76-yard drive. Quarterback Nate Stanley hit receiver Nick Easley on a 7-yard swing pass for a touchdown. Then, for the first of four (million) replays, officials overturned the score. Easley fumbled at the 1, and the ball squirted out of the end zone for a touchdown. There’s some heartburn.
North Texas contributed to the pit in Iowa’s stomach with a 6-play, 80-yard drive. The Mean Green gained at least 6 yards on every play. On second-and-1 at the Iowa 41, North Texas running back Jeffery Wilson burst up the middle and juked every Iowa defender untouched for a touchdown.
The madness escalated on Iowa’s next drive. On third-and-9 at his own 26, Stanley threw to running back Akrum Wadley in the right flat. Wadley turned in another one of his highlight-reel specials and raced up the sideline for a 74-yard score. Only, Wadley dropped two high steps inside the 10. In one of a combined 19 (million) penalties called, Wadley was hit for unsportsmanlike conduct at the 6-yard line. The touchdown was erased and the ball brought back to the 21. Iowa still scored a on the drive, but it took 7 more plays, a fourth-down conversation and a tipped pass for a touchdown on third-and-goal from the 8.
If anybody needed an Alka-Seltzer in the first quarter, it was Ferentz. And it still wouldn’t have helped.
Wadley injured his right ankle in the second quarter and didn’t return. With the ball at the North Texas 47, Stanley fumbled and North Texas’ T.J. Tauaalo recovered and returned the ball to the Iowa 16. The only part keeping this headache from becoming a migraine was Tauaalo fumbled and Iowa running back James Butler recovered.
The end of the second quarter tied it all together for Iowa. Defensive end A.J. Epenesa, who was blocked into North Texas quarterback Mason Fine’s left leg, was called for roughing the passer. Three plays later, Iowa cornerback Manny Rugamba was penalized for a late hit out of bounds. North Texas scored a touchdown with 11 seconds left in the half to take a 14-10 lead.
This is when the Hawkeyes back in 2007 or 2012 would get frustrated, lose their poise, and ultimately the game, in unpalatable fashion. Instead, the 2017 version on a bad day pushed through the slush and finished their job.
“It was more of an attitude change,” Iowa defensive end Parker Hesse said. “We had to look ourselves in the mirror and just decide, ‘Are we going to ride the wave and be up and down all year or are we going to play Iowa football?’ ”
The second half wasn’t perfect for Iowa, but it was damn close. The Hawkeyes outscored the Mean Green, 21-0, and had the ball on the 2-yard line at game’s end. Iowa held the ball for 21 minutes, 21 seconds in the second half and 40:45 for the game. North Texas had 212 yards in the first half and 93 after halftime. The Mean Green failed to convert a single third-down opportunity, while Iowa converted 7 of 9 third downs and 2 of 2 fourth-down chances after halftime.
Still, there was some second-half pain for Iowa. Butler suffered an elbow injury midway through the third quarter, and it could keep him out of the game next week against Penn State. But third and fourth running backs Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin combined for 152 rushing yards with Butler and Wadley on the sideline. Kelly-Martin scored twice in the fourth quarter.
There’s a self-awareness about this team where the players and coaches know that a repeat performance next week against Penn State could net a similar outcome to a 41-14 loss last year. The strides have been inconsistent. But only five teams in the Ferentz era have finished nonconference play unbeaten, so learning in victory is better than suffering lessons in defeat.
“The one thing about this team, I guess we’re 3 for 3 for digging holes, you know, we’re pretty good at that,” Ferentz said. “These guys fight through it and play through it, and I trace that back to January. The attitude has been really good with this team since January. The thing I’m happy about is I know we could improve a lot more, but I would be a little happier if we could pick up the pace on that one. And hopefully, we’re going to be able to do that.”