By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Shame on you for thinking this would be easy from start to finish.
You should know after nearly two decades that hardly anything comes easy for Kirk Ferentz and the Iowa football team, and that was certainly the case on Saturday as Iowa overcame a sluggish and sloppy offensive performance in the first half to defeat Northern Illinois 33-7 in the season opener at Kinnick Stadium.
Ferentz made history with the victory as he surpassed his former boss and close friend Hayden Fry to become Iowa’s all-time winningest football coach with 144 career wins.
“Happy about getting the win for sure,” Ferentz said. “Nothing ever comes easy, needless to say at this point. And I think it was a really good way for us to start the season. We didn’t anticipate anything being easy today and it certainly wasn’t.
“A lot of rough edges out there. We didn’t play clean football, in the first half in particular, but even throughout. There are a lot of things that we still can get better at. But I think what really carried our football team is we really played hard.”
It seemed almost fitting that Ferentz’s milestone moment would come in a game in which his team’s performance on offense left much to be desired in the first half when Iowa rushed for just 58 yards, had at least four dropped passes and converted on just 3-of-8 third-down plays.
Iowa has struggled at times on offense under the 63-year old Ferentz, who has been criticized over the years for being too conservative, too predictable and too stubborn when it comes to his offense.
But offense is only part of the game, and to say that Iowa was effective on defense during Saturday’s historic win would be an understatement.
Parker Hesse and his defensive cohorts were rock-solid pretty much from start to finish. There were some missed assignments on defense early in the first quarter, but it’s hard to be critical of a defense that almost pitches a shutout.
Northern Illinois only gained 65 yards in the second half and most of it came late in the fourth quarter when the outcome was pretty much decided.
Hesse was asked what happened during halftime to ignite the team.
“Not really anything in terms of like rah-rah motivation,” he said. “We just knew we had to keep plugging and just keep trying to wear them down and playing with effort. And we know if we do that, then eventually, and hopefully, we can prevail.”
It looked obvious by late in the third quarter that Northern Illinois’ defense was tired and no match for Iowa in the trenches.
The Iowa offense didn’t start to click until sophomore running back Toren Young came off the bench to provide a spark in the third quarter.
Young ran like somebody who wanted his starting job back after having been passed on the depth chart by Ivory Kelly-Martin and Mekhi Sargent during preseason practice. The Wisconsin native ripped off runs of 40 and 24 yards in the third quarter.
“I feel like when he got his chance to come in he took full advantage of it and made a couple big runs for us,” said Iowa tight end Noah Fant. “And I think that speaks tremendously on his part because he was ready and he’s a competitor and he did what he had to do.
“So he came in and really capitalized on those plays that were given to him. And that’s a great thing for him.”
Instead of pouting or sulking after being demoted, Young stayed the course and then seized the moment when it came on Saturday.
“My job is to play when my number is called and when it’s not, it’s to support and coach the other guys,” Young said. “We are running back by committee, and it’s substitutional decisions and best fit for that play called.”
Saturday’s game was an emotional roller coaster for Iowa fans as many of them complained about the offense on social media during halftime. They questioned the play calling and ripped the lack of execution as fans often do.
But the mood quickly changed once the Iowa offense found a rhythm.
Ferentz fought back tears as his assistant coaches congratulated him on the sideline in the closing seconds. He then praised everybody associated with the program but himself, which isn’t a surprise because it’s never about Kirk Ferentz.
“It was a good day for us,” Ferentz said. “Maybe a little extra ice cream tonight, you never know. We’ll really cut it loose.”
It’s a good day for Ferentz anytime his team prevails.
He would’ve liked for the offense to be more efficient, but Ferentz knows his offense is a work in progress.
Ferentz was asked if Saturday’s victory was emblematic of the kind wins his program has been built on.
“In a lot of ways, I guess, because first of all, it wasn’t easy,” Ferentz said. “
Ferentz also was asked about next Saturday’s annual showdown with Iowa State and whether he had any thoughts.
“Yeah, you might imagine I do, but we’ll enjoy this tonight and go see my family and we’ll get going tomorrow,” Ferentz said. “We got a lot of film here to look at and things to correct.”