IOWA CITY, Iowa —What looked like an aberration two weeks ago has become a major problem for Iowa.
The tough, hard-nosed reputation Iowa’s defense has owned since, well, forever, was chewed up Saturday like a cornfield during planting season. North Dakota State of the FCS ilk pounded mercilessly all day at the No. 13 Hawkeyes at Kinnick Stadium.
The surprising number? North Dakota State’s 23-21 upset victory. The shocking number? Iowa gave up 239 yards on the ground.
“They just ran it up our throats there for a little while, and that’s why they won,” Iowa linebacker Bo Bower said.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz was concerned when his vaunted Iowa defense gave up 158 rushing yards to Miami of Ohio in the opener. Some of that was excusable because middle linebacker Josey Jewell was ejected one series into the game for targeting. After Saturday’s loss, Ferentz’s concern soared like a fire bolt through Dante’s nine circles of hell.
Three straight games, three straight 125-plus rushing efforts by Iowa’s opponents. But this one by far was the worst. North Dakota State pounded with the precision of a pendulum straight at Iowa’s defense, and there was nothing the Hawkeyes could do about it.
North Dakota State had 36 rushing yards at halftime. But in the second half, when Iowa’s FBS pedigree was supposed to help it win the day, the defense defaulted. The Bison ran for 203 yards on 26 carries after halftime. Iowa’s offense didn’t offer any help, rushing for minus-7 yards on 14 attempts in the second half. But that’s another story. This is about how the Big Ten West Division favorite’s defense was pounded into submission by a school with 22 fewer scholarships.
“I think they were plus-200 at least running the football, so yeah, that’s something we can’t … we’re not going to be successful doing that,” Ferentz said. “I know that.”
It was a full-scale ground invasion in the fourth quarter. In 15 plays, the Bison rumbled from their own 20 with 12:20 left in the game to the Iowa doorstep. A touchdown and failed 2-point conversion pulled the Bison within 21-20 of Iowa.
Twelve of North Dakota State’s plays were on the ground. One was a 6-yard gain on third-and-3. Another was a 2-yard run on fourth-and-1. Every critical down was won by the tougher team, and it wasn’t the one in black-and-gold.
“Our defense is a very aggressive defense,” Faith Ekakitie said. “But at the same time when they do start scheming us a little bit, I think it almost takes advantage of that aggressiveness and it can work against us.”
As always, it’s more than scheme, and there was something off during that entire series. Iowa’s defensive tackles were out of position on a few plays. The weakside linebacker was hesitant and then late. The middle linebacker got blocked. The strong safety didn’t wrap up. Neither did a cornerback. Each failure allowed an extra couple of yards. Every time, the Bison made the Hawkeyes pay.
Even with all the failures, Iowa should have preserved a one-point victory. North Dakota State opened their final drive with the ball on its 35 with 1:53 left. That’s when the deeper team with more scholarships should hold on. That’s when the team with a $55 million football facility and $5 million head coach and $600,000 strength coach and the reigning Jim Thorpe Award winner and the 70,000 fans force a turnover to win the game. Instead, it was the Bison that pushed through.
On the first play, quarterback Easton Stick ran for 29 yards on a draw. Every Iowa defender was blocked up front and so were the linebackers. Four plays later, North Dakota State kicker Cam Pedersen drilled a 37-yard field goal. Game over. FCS 23, Big Ten West 21.
“That’s not our standard play at all,” Ekakitie said. “All of us as a collective have got to step it up and learn from these first three games and use it as a learning experience as to where we need to improve as a defense and move on from there.”
In the fourth quarter, North Dakota State rushed for 103 yards on 15 carries. Among all the numbers, that tells the biggest story. It’s also Iowa’s greatest concern.