It could be worse. It's a bummer to have seen Iowa spend most of the second half ahead—NIU's first lead after halftime came with four seconds left—and then lose it on a horrific pick and late field goal. As losses go, that's one of the most brutal in Kinnick Stadium since... well, last year's Purdue debacle. And then Wisconsin in 2010. But that's how unusual these bad losses have been: just enough that you can pick them out of every other season or so.
It's particularly brutal because Iowa really should have won this game. If the two teams played 10 times, 1) Jim Delany would be demanding answers right this minute, and 2) Iowa would probably win six or seven of the 10. NIU's lines were feisty, but Iowa's were more physical and you generally saw the point of attack move in Iowa's favor regardless of who had the ball. As Ross mentioned earlier, that pass rush didn't do Iowa any favors at times, but that seemed to be by design. Some horrible, wretched design.
The line domination manifested itself well, especially on offense. Iowa rushed for over 200 yards as a team, led by Mark Weisman putting together 100 yards in a bruising performance, and Rudock remained upright with ease all day long. If the front five stay healthy (much more a need than on defense, where parts are generally more interchangeable if you've got the depth), then Iowa should be able to establish a run against nearly anyone in the Big Ten.
Really, both teams played a much better game than what went down at Soldier Field last year, and unfortunately it ended up being a close game... and that's usually doom for Iowa. The Hawkeyes are now 3-10 in one-score games since 2010, which we don't need to tell you is a serious problem. So it goes.
And yet, seriously, this could be worse. As mentioned before, both teams played better than last year, so if Iowa were the same flat bunch of goons as from the last half of 2012, this wouldn't have even been close. And it's one thing to lose to a MAC foe. It's another to be embarrassed by one, and the Iowa we saw by the end of last season would have been embarrassed by this NIU squad.
Moreover, look around. Iowa State got worked by UNI in a game that didn't feel at all like an upset. Seven other FBS schools lost to FCS opponents, and some of them were even bigger names than Iowa—KSU, looking your way here. Iowa played a strong MAC team (yes, that's like saying "a tall sixth-grader," but hear me out) and it caught an upset for its troubles. That's a bummer, and it's probably going to affect the bowl chase this season, but it's hardly indicative of unfixable problems.
Iowa has its Tony Romo. Jake Rudock was just fine in his debut. 21/37, 256 yards, two total TDs, plenty of grit or moxie or what have you... and right when the game hung in the balance, one of the worst interceptions we've seen since the days of the Rick-Six when Stanzi was outchea tripling the amount of gray in Kirk Ferentz's hair.
You can say what you want about the wisdom of an out-heavy passing attack and going to it in that game situation (short outs being the most likely to result in catastrophic INT returns since no offensive player's likely to be in position to make a quick tackle), but honestly that pass was so bad that had Rudock thrown it to any receiver in any direction, bad things would have happened. It was such a horrendous throw that, like, what do you say about it? He should have thrown it better? Well, no kidding. Rudock clearly knows that; if his throws were that bad all the time, he would have been moved away from quarterback by, like, 7th grade.
So for now, we chalk it up to one bad throw. If Rudock develops a habit of gaffes, especially late, we might have to revisit this whole thing, but for now, it's important to look at the whole: Rudock played a generally very good game, threw for more yards per attempt than Mr. Heisman Candidate Jordan Lynch did, and gave significant reason for optimism. Mostly.
And yet, ugggghhhhhhh. There's no getting around the fact that Iowa is 4-11 in its last 15 games. 3-10 in close games since 2010. 5-5 in its last 10 non-conference games (including bowls). 10-14 in Big Ten games since that gigantic contract got signed. At some point, this stops being a downturn and starts being a new, lousy normal. It gets reflected in the record, in TV slots, in attendance and recruiting.
The recruiting's been pretty lackluster for years now, actually. Even when Iowa was strong. And yes, star ratings don't mean a whole lot when it comes to individual players; 2-star guys frequently beat 4-star guys for playing time. It's just that as a whole, Iowa seems to be getting most of its commitments from guys who would have otherwise gone to the MAC, and if Iowa's going to keep recruiting like a MAC team, it shouldn't be a surprise anymore when Iowa keeps getting beaten by MAC teams.