IOWA CITY — At least Iowa now is losing to a better caliber of Mid-American Conference opponent.
The Hawkeyes fell behind MAC favorite Northern Illinois on Saturday by 10 points early, rallied to go ahead at halftime and held the lead into the final five minutes.
Then they fell into the trap that snared them last season — losing a close game late.
With 1:17 to play, first-time quarterback Jake Rudock made his first real rookie mistake, throwing an interception that set up Mathew Sims for a 36-yard field goal with four seconds to go that gave Northern Illinois a 30-27 victory.
This one, upon first review, is difficult to dissect because I saw more from Iowa than expected.
The offense opened up, gaining 458 yards. The no-huddle was used almost exclusively, though it was only irregularly high-tempo. Bulldozer Mark Weisman ran for 100 yards. And the defense held Northern Illinois and record-smashing quarterback Jordan Lynch to just a field goal in the first six drives of the second half.
But first-year Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey outsnookered 15-year Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz more than once, most notably on a third-quarter fake punt in which the Hawkeyes had their “punt-safe” team on the field and still couldn't stop it.
To Iowa's credit, this was a good opponent. Northern Illinois is receiving votes in the Top 25 and has won 22 of its past 24 games.
But the Huskies' top running back sat out with an injury. Then hard-to-handle wide receiver Tommylee Lewis, who caught two first-half touchdown passes, left for good with a bad ankle the first play of the second half.
The hard truth is the MAC school still had enough depth and talent to outlast the Big Ten team. And Northern Illinois clearly had the best quarterback, as Lynch collected 331 total yards and three touchdowns.
The result for Iowa is a seventh straight loss, including four straight at Kinnick Stadium, where interest is starting to wane. The house was 3,000 short of full, marking just the fourth time in the past 66 games there was no sellout.
That's what the Hawkeyes are left to make salad out of.
“They outplayed us,” said junior guard Brandon Scherff from Denison, Iowa. “They made the plays in the critical situations. I think we moved forward, but we have to keep moving forward.”
You'd think Ferentz might eventually throw a shoe after one of these games. Instead, he sat quietly at his postgame presser, with little beyond sarcasm for the questions he didn't like about mistakes and the following scintillating analysis:
“If we would have won the game, it would have been great. We lost, so it's not so good.”
The cloud from going 4-8 last season in a very-down year for the Big Ten still hovers over this program like a hangover. How does getting another headache in the season opener feel?
“Last year was last year and this year is this year,” senior linebacker James Morris said with some spunk. “That's all I'm going to say about that.”
Dominic Alvis is another member of the senior class, which saw its career record fall below .500 (19-20) Saturday. He softly uttered an angry word before finding something of value from the loss.
“Just because you work hard at something, it doesn't guarantee success,” said the defensive end from Logan, Iowa. “You've still got to earn it. You've still got to make plays.”
Some Iowa players tried to sell the story that a first-game loss doesn't matter, citing Northern Illinois going 12-2 last season after an opening- game loss to Iowa.
But Iowa doesn't have Lynch at quarterback, coolly leading a tying fourth-quarter touchdown drive of 75 yards or managing the final 77 seconds spotlessly to set up the winning kick in the middle of the field.
The Hawkeyes also don't have the offensive playmakers of NIU nor the speed on the defensive edge the Huskies possess. U of I still has run-of-the-mill baseline talent.
“There is hope,” Alvis said. “I don't think for a second we gave up. It's just details.”
To some extent, I agree there is some hope. With the mediocre showing the Big Ten put on this weekend, sneaking out a couple of unexpected wins could get you bowl eligible.
But after this week's guaranteed win over FCS foe Missouri State, Iowa likely will be an underdog in eight of its 10 remaining games. No amount of improvement seen Saturday changes that.