IOWA CITY – Iowa senior linebacker James Morris said it best.
The Hawkeye football team has to figure out how to win, because the close-but-not-close-enough results are getting old.
Leading by seven in the fourth quarter, the Hawkeyes once again could not finish off a victory as Northern Illinois kicker Mathew Sims booted a 36-yard field goal with 4 seconds to go and those three points propelled the Huskies to a 30-27 win at Kinnick Stadium in the season opener for both teams.
Iowa is now 3-9 in games decided by three points or less since the 2010-11 season. The Hawkeyes went 4-1 in those same situations during its Orange Bowl year in 2009.
“We need to learn how to win,” said Morris, who finished with six tackles and two tackles for loss. What does that mean? It means you have to be so in tune to the ebb and flow of the game, you have to know the situations and what’s at stake.
“Right now, we just don’t know how to win close games.”
The offense that plagued the Hawkeyes so much last year was better Saturday. Iowa racked up 202 rushing yards behind 100 from Mark Weisman and 76 from Damon Bullock and sophomore Jake Rudock threw for 256 yards in his first career start, but the Hawkeyes turned it over three times and had the ball for just 4:14 in the third period.
“If it’s not a tough loss, you’re not invested. We are all invested on this team,” said Weisman, who averaged five yards per carry but also fumbled in the first half. “We need guys out there making plays. We really didn’t at the end of the game today. We need to work on that and be more physical, too.”
The Huskies, who lost to Iowa by a point last season before running the table all the way to the Orange Bowl, converted the Hawkeyes’ three turnovers into three field goals. The first one came off a Weisman fumble and Rudock also tossed two interceptions, including a pick late in the fourth quarter with the game tied at 27-all.
“I will have to watch the film and see what happened there, but that is unacceptable,” Weisman said of the fumble. “It can’t happen and it led to three points. You do the math.”
The Huskies jumped out to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter. Sims gave Northern Illinois a 3-0 lead with a 47-yard field goal following the Weisman fumble. The lead grew to 10 when Heisman contender Jordan Lynch hit Tommylee Lewis on a 40-yard post route with 3:47 left in the period.
“Our guys believed we could win the game,” Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey said. “They believed that if the game was close, we would make the plays to win the game.
“All it means is we’re 1-0. All we got on our sights on right now is Idaho. We are going to enjoy this one for 24 hours and then turn the page.”
Iowa contained Lynch in the running game. He ran for more than 1,800 yards last year but finished with just 56 on the ground against the Hawkeyes. However, he was 25-for-41 through the air for 275 yards and three scores.
“It wasn’t a revenge game or anything,” said Lynch. “We knew it was going to be tough coming on the road at Iowa. It’s tough playing here. Being down seven in the fourth quarter did not make it easy for us. We all have each other’s back and this team can go a long ways if we keep playing like that.”
The Iowa defense sparked a comeback. Senior linebacker Christian Kirksey forced a fumble, recovered the loose ball and rumbled 52 yards to cut the Hawkeye deficit to three and then Mike Meyer added a 28-yard field goal to tie it at 10 with 8:24 to play until halftime.
The Hawkeyes eventually took the lead when Rudock found 6-foot-7 tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz for an 11-yard touchdown on third and nine.
After Lynch once again found Lewis on a 21-yard touchdown pass, Rudock gave the Hawkeyes a halftime lead with a six-yard touchdown run with 53 seconds on the clock.
The only points of the third quarter came on another Sims field goal following a fake punt that resulted in a 42-yard scramble for Tyler Wedel. Sims’ kick cut the Iowa lead to 24-20.
“We had to find a way to make a play. We had to do something to get going down by seven,” Carey said. “We thought we had an opportunity to run it earlier in the game and just waited for the right moment and then executed it.”
Iowa answered with a 10-play, 44-yard drive midway through the fourth quarter that ended in a Meyer 44-yard field goal with 6:42.
That was the last time Iowa would score though as Lynch hooked up with Da’Ron Brown on a 33-yard touchdown pass to tie it with 5:05 to go and then Sims buried the Hawkeyes with a 36-yard boot with 4 seconds to play to win it.
Iowa had the ball with less than two minutes to play in a tie game. But on the first play of the drive, Rudock threw to the sidelines on a short out route, but Jimmie Ward was there to pick it off.
“They were doing a lot of corner and out routes throughout the game and in film study we saw that,” Ward said. “I jumped one early but the ball was thrown too high. I tried it again on that last one and took a chance. It worked out for us.”
The Hawkeyes had one last shot to win the game but gained only 37 yards on their final play following several laterals.
“It was a tough football game to lose,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “I thought there were a lot of positive things that we saw on the field by a lot of different guys, but the bottom line is we just didn’t make enough plays to be successful. To (Northern Illinois’) credit, they capitalized, and we didn’t.”
Iowa finished with 458 yards of total offense but scored just three points in the second half. Kevonte Martin-Manley hauled in nine catches for 79 yards, while Jordan Cotton turned two catches into 58 yards.
Lewis had five catches for 82 yards but did not return after suffering an injury in the third quarter. Brown snatched seven Lynch passes for 92 yards. The Huskies finished with 438 total yards and turned it over just once in the win.
“They had a different gameplan this year,” Morris said of the Northern Illinois offense. “It was a little more spread out and a little more up-tempo. They put themselves into winning situations by spreading it out. They had a good gameplan, but I thought we had a good gameplan, too. We just need to execute.”
Kirksey led the Iowa defense with 14 tackles, a fumble forced, a fumble return and a touchdown. Anthony Hitchens had 13 tackles as well. … Ward led the Huskie defense with 13 tackles and the late interception. … Former Hawkeyes Brad Banks and Micah Hyde spent much of the game on the Iowa sidelines. … It was a tough day for Hawkeyes in the NFL as Tyler Sash, Tony Moeaki, Marvin McNutt, Amari Spievey, Keenan Davis and Shaun Prater were all cut from their respective team’s rosters Saturday.