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Iowa 18, Northern Illinois 17: Welcome to Opposite Day

WHEW. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-US PRESSWIRE
WHEW. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-US PRESSWIRE

Apologies for the delay in posting this recap. -- RB

So that game went just about like we all expected it to go, right? With a come-from-behind nail-biter win from an Iowa team led by their defense and running game? I think that's how we drew it up last week. Suffice to say, this was an odd game. Iowa was not particularly sharp for much of the game (which was bad), but managed to eke out a win anyway (which was good). We got glimpses of the new-look offense and defense but it would be beyond foolish to draw too many conclusions from just one game.

* Hello, Damon Bullock. We all thought Bullock would have 176 yards of total offense and 33 touches, right? Thought so. His biggest carry was, of course, the 23-yard touchdown run that clinched the victory for Iowa, but that was far from his only good run -- he had seven other runs of 7 yards or more. He looked more comfortable than I expected in the running game (and seemed to usually read his blocks well and make the correct decision) and was a solid option in the passing game. Certainly, giving him 33 touches a game on a regular basis seems like a poor idea (even without taking into account AIRBHG), but it was definitely encouraging that he looked as good (against a defense that may be the best he faces until Michigan State in mid-October) as he did on Saturday.

Ferentz claimed we would see three running backs before the game, but only Bullock and Garmon saw carries on Saturday. In part, that may have been because of Bullock's general effectiveness, but at least one of those two will need to emerge as a capable second banana to Bullock this year -- there's no way Bullock can take the pounding that comes with 30 carries a game. Garmon saw very limited action (4 carries for 8 yards) and he... looked like most true freshman running backs, frankly. He looked a little nervous and didn't seem to read his blocks very well; hopefully that improves as he settles down.

* Not the Mandenberg. It was good that Bullock decided to have such a star-making performance on Saturday because the guy we would have expected to carry the offense, senior QB James Vandenberg, turned in a pretty poor showing -- 21/33, 129 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT. If you also factor in yards lost via sacks (which the NFL does -- in team passing stats, anyway), Vandenberg would have thrown for just 84 yards. Still, no matter how you interpret the numbers, there's no point of view in which they look good. 3.9 yards per attempt is ghastly. Vandenberg and his receivers often seemed to be on different pages of the playbook, and that problem was exacerbated by some poor throws he made and some poor decisions to check the ball down. I don't think he was helped all that much by the playcalling -- we definitely saw a lot of the horizontal offense that Texas fans grew to loathe and that seems like a bad fit for this group of Iowa offensive personnel -- but Vandenberg still need to be better (a LOT better) for Iowa to be successful this year. Hopefully a return to Kinnick Stadium, site of Iowa's next four games and a place where Vandenberg has, historically, been much sharper, will be just what the doctor ordered.

* The Ole Line. Heading into the season, we were operating under the assumption that the offensive line would be a strength of the team. Maybe that was just merely a relative assessment in relation other position groups, but after their performance Saturday, we definitely need to reassess that belief. They weren't all bad -- the run blocking was frequently pretty good -- but giving up six sacks (although I only noticed five when I watched the game again, which is backed up by ESPN's play-by-play recap) is pretty bad. In fairness, not every sack was their fault -- Bullock was partially at fault on one of them and Vandenberg still needs to do a better job of recognizing blitzes at times and shifting protections -- but they still looked pretty lousy. Brett Van Sloten was a turnstile at times, Brandon Scherff got torched by an NIU defensive end on one sack and Austin Blythe got burned badly a few times in pass protection, too. Then again, he's a redshirt freshman and this group as a whole returned just one starter (James Ferentz at center) -- some growing pains should have been expected. We just need to hope that this offensive line can get past them in a hurry.

* Holding the line. In fact, you could make a credible argument that the better line on Saturday was Iowa's defensive line -- you know, the unit that had all of us quaking in terror heading into the season. They certainly struggled at times on Saturday (especially early on), but they really improved throughout the game. Most of the best defensive plays Iowa made all day were all made by defensive linemen -- Joe Gaglione had 3 TFL, a sack, and a forced fumble; Dominic Alvis had 2 TFL and a sack; and Darian Cooper deflected a pass in the fourth quarter -- and as a unit they got better over the course of the game. It wasn't a perfect day -- they got pushed around too easily in the first half, got caught out of position a few times, and made a few bad mistakes (like Gaglione's facemask penalty) -- but they acquitted themselves pretty well, on the whole. As expected, Iowa rotated players heavily along the line -- Alvis, Cooper, Louis Trinca-Pasat, and Steve Bigach started (your latest reminder that Iowa depth charts should be taken with a heaping helping of salt), but Carl Davis and Gaglione saw a lot of action and Mike Hardy saw a few snaps. All of those guys had good plays and bad plays, but I thought in general that Alvis, Cooper, Gaglione, and LTP were Iowa's four best defensive linemen on the day.

* Kicking is winning. It was a good day for the most part for Iowa's specialists on Saturday. Mike Meyer made 4/5 field goals (including a tricky 50-yard field goal under pressure circumstances in the fourth quarter) and had three touchbacks on six kickoffs, which is an improvement on what we saw last year. Given the changes the NCAA has made to kickoffs, I think we want to see better than a 50% touchback percentage, but it's hard to criticize Meyer too much for Saturday, given the shitty footing (BREAKING NEWS: Soldier Field still has horrible turf) and the fact that we don't know whether or not he was instructed to kick it short on a few kicks. The one field goal he missed just barely missed (watching from inside the stadium, I thought it was good), too. On a day when Iowa's offense had epic red zone problems, Meyer's ability to drill field goals kept Iowa in the game. Well done, Mike.

Meyer's counterparts in the punting game also had a good day at the office on Saturday. Freshman Connor Kornbrath had 3 punts for 124 yards (a healthy 41.3 yards-per-kick average) in his first game action, while senior John Wienke made probably his best play in an Iowa uniform on the 43-yard punt he drilled down to the NIU 1-yard line in the fourth quarter. That punt was instrumental in setting up Iowa's game-winning touchdown drive. "Punting is winning" is usually something we say in jest, but it was actually 100% true on Saturday.

* We can haz change? Finally, this was our first game to see the new coordinators in action and to see just how much change we might be in store for this season. We'll need to see a few more games before we can come to any definitive conclusions, but through one game, my verdict would be: it's still recognizably Iowa football... but some things are different, too. The changes were a bit more evident on offense than defense -- other than a little dime coverage and more press coverage from the cornerbacks, there didn't seem to be a lot different about the defense (and there was definitely less blitzing than I expected to see). As noted before, the offense definitely took on a more horizontal bent -- lots of little screen passes and short flare-outs. We also saw more no huddle and a quicker tempo from the offense (Iowa ran 82 plays on offense against NIU; they tended to be in the 60s under KOK). Iowa also actually tried to push for a score at the end of the first half, despite only having 1:10 remaining and just one timeout -- that was refreshing. The offense certainly wasn't as good as it needs to be on Saturday, but we'll have to see how things progress over the next few weeks. If the offensive line can pick up its pass protection and if Vandenberg can settle down, things could look rosier for the offense. If not, well...


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