IOWA CITY, Iowa – Well, at least one team was as good as advertised.
Beware of the Bison was something we heard all week in preparation for Saturday’s cross-divisional football game between Iowa and five-time defending FCS national champion North Dakota State.
The narrative heading into the game said that Iowa had better play up to its potential and not take this FCS powerhouse lightly because anything less would be asking for trouble.
The Hawkeyes were in trouble from the beginning of Saturday’s game and it ultimately cost them as North Dakota State kicker Cam Pedersen made a 37-yard field goal as time expired to lift the Bison to a stunning 23-21 victory before a sellout crowd of 70,585 at Kinnick Stadium.
The score, of course, was the most disturbing and confusing statistic from Saturday’s game, but not far behind were the lopsided rushing totals for each team.
North Dakota State shredded the Iowa defense for 239 rushing yards despite having a roster filled with players who either weren’t big enough or fast enough or talented enough to play for a Big Ten team.
Iowa, on the other hand, only had 34 net rushing yards on 25 carries, or in other words, 205 fewer rushing yards than the Bison despite having a roster filled with players who would’ve been considered prize recruits at North Dakota State.
It would be one thing if Ohio State or Michigan shutdown Iowa’s ground attack to that extreme.
But an FCS team?
It just shouldn’t happen, regardless of a team’s pedigree. The Bison shouldn’t be better at playing power football than Iowa. But they were on Saturday. And it wasn’t even close.
There were some extenuating circumstances that impacted Iowa’s rushing woes, including the absence of starting center James Daniels and starting guard Sean Welsh to injuries.
The Hawkeyes also self-destructed at the worst times, like when tight end George Kittle was called for holding on the first play of the third quarter, which erased a 63-yard run by LeShun Daniels.
“It’s kind of like baseball, when you walk a guy in the ninth inning, it invariably comes back and gets you, and those little things make a big difference in momentum, just how your team plays,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz.
“Now you’re sitting there first and twenty instead of first and goal down inside the five, little things like that factor into statistics, and that’s just how it went today.”
Maybe we should’ve seen this coming after Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard missed a wide open Kittle on the first play of the game. Kittle had released from the line of scrimmage and slipped past his defender, but Beathard failed to make what was a pretty easy throw by his standards.
Beathard also was hurt figuratively and literally by several dropped passes and by several missed blocks by his linemen. He had to leave the game briefly in the third quarter after taking a hit to the shoulder.
True freshman Nate Stanley replaced Beathard and provided one of the two silver linings on Saturday, along with punter Ron Coluzzi, by completing both his pass attempts for 45 yards.
But for the most part, Saturday’s game just didn’t feel right from the beginning.
Daniels was held to no gain on his first rushing attempt, which came on the play after Beathard had overthrown Kittle.
Nobody knew it at the time, but the tone was set.
Daniels led Iowa in rushing with 29 yards on 14 carries. He entered the game averaging 6.3 yards per attempt.
Akrum Wadley was practically a no-show, rushing only four times for 20 yards. Wadley has been hobbled by a sore knee, but Ferentz said after Saturday’s game that Wadley was fine.
But if that were the case, then why was Wadley used so sparingly after rotating with Daniels in the first two games? It just doesn’t make sense, unless there is more to the story than we’re being told.
You can point to lots of things that contributed to Iowa’s slow demise on Saturday. But its inability to gain yards on the ground was by far the most discouraging and impactful thing.
Being without two starters on the offensive line certainly added to the challenge. But shouldn’t Iowa enough quality depth to avoid being dominated on the ground?
“We know that they’re a great opponent and they’ve got a good defense,” Beathard said. “They play hard and they play tough.
“But we thought we’d be able to run the ball a little bit better just because that’s what we do. We like to run the ball. And it wasn’t working today.”
Iowa was just two first downs from securing the victory on Saturday, but its final offensive possession turned into a disaster.
Daniels was tackled for a 2-yard loss on first down and then he only gained one yard on second down.
Faced with a 3rd-and-11, Beathard dropped back to pass, but he was sacked by a blitzing Robbie Grimsley for a 9-yard loss. Grimsley made it obvious that he planned to blitz and Beathard even pointed him out to his blockers.
And yet, Grimsley still had a clear path to Beathard from his safety position.
Beathard was asked how that could happen.
“I don’t know, it should have been picked up,” he said. “But for some reason or another, it wasn’t and he came free.”
There were lots things that should have happened on Saturday, but didn’t.
Iowa should’ve won the battle at the line of scrimmage. It should have won the battle between quarterbacks. And it should have won the battle in space.
But instead, the Hawkeyes lost all three of those battles and it resulted in the first regular-season setback since the 37-34 overtime collapse against Nebraska in the 2014 regular-season finale at Kinnick Stadium.
How you deal with Saturday’s loss will depend on how you choose to perceive the well-oiled football machine from Fargo, N.D. and on how telling you think one loss can be.
You have to admire North Dakota State coach Chris Klieman for having the guts to go for two instead of the almost sure-tie extra-point kick, with Iowa clinging to a 21-20 lead after the Bison had scored a touchdown with 3 minutes, 41 seconds left to play.
If his team’s performance up to that point didn’t show that the Bison were serious about winning, Klieman’s decision to go for two certainly did.
“What that told me is these guys want to win this game,” said Iowa senior defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson. “It definitely told us these guys came prepared to win in Kinnick. And that’s what they did.”
Klieman spent the week reminding his players that they deserved to be on the same field with Iowa or any other FBS opponent for that matter. The Bison extended their winning streak to six games against FBS opponents with Saturday’s victory.
“I can’t say enough about the guys in the locker room,” said Klieman, who grew up in Waterloo and played football and coached at Northern Iowa. “What a resilient bunch. We told them all week that we belong. We belong in this game. We belong in the spotlight.
“What we’ve done in the past has given us the opportunity to that think that we belonged.”
This wasn’t a question about whether North Dakota State belonged on the same field with Iowa. The Bison had clearly earned that opportunity.
The question was whether the Bison had a legitimate chance to leave Kinnick Stadium with a victory.
We now have our answer, but does Saturday’s result say more about North Dakota State or about Iowa?
The gloom and doomers probably already are assuming the worst and saying I told you this would come back to haunt Iowa with regard to Ferentz’s new contract and the lucrative buyout that comes with it.
Fans need somebody to blame after a loss of this magnitude.
Iowa now faces a public relations nightmare because as great as North Dakota State has been over the past five years, it is still an FCS team with fewer scholarships and a much smaller recruiting budget than Iowa.
But on the other hand, the gap that separates FBS teams from FCS teams has narrowed over the past two decades in the wake of scholarships reductions, making upsets like Saturday possible.
We nearly saw it happen in 2009 when Iowa had to block back-to-back field goals against Northern Iowa to escape from Kinnick Stadium with a 17-16 victory.
The Hawkeyes appeared vulnerable after that close call, but still finished 11-2 overall.
So you can’t read too much into one game.
But it isn’t just that Iowa lost on Saturday that is alarming, but rather how it lost.
The Hawkeyes got pushed around on the line of scrimmage by an FCS opponent. The same Iowa team that averaged 205 rushing yards in the first two games was held to fewer than 40 on Saturday.
It’s hard to say it was a wake-up call or that Iowa took the Bison lightly because the pre-game chatter made North Dakota State sound almost unbeatable.
The Iowa players performed on Saturday as if losing was a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Losing the battle in the trenches just made it worse.