By SCOTT JACKSON Courier sports writer
---- — IOWA CITY – Iowa fans are becoming all too familiar with this sort of painful outcome.
This time, however, a new player took part in yet another nail-biting defeat.
Sophomore quarterback Jake Rudock, who shined at times in his first time seeing college game action, threw his second career interception at a most inopportune time. Senior safety Jimmie Ward picked off the first pass thrown by Rudock on what Hawkeye fans were hoping would be the first game-winning drive led by the new Iowa quarterback, which instead set up Mathews Sims for a winning field goal with four seconds left as Northern Illinois avenged last season’s close season-opening loss the Hawkeyes with a 30-27 victory in front of 67,402 gold-clad fans that were left Kinnick Stadium in familiar frustration.
“It was a tough football game to lose,” Iowa head football coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Give Northern (Illinois) credit; they did a great job. I thought our guys played really hard. There were a lot of positive things that we saw out there on the field by a lot of different guys, but the bottom line is we just didn’t make enough plays to be successful. To their credit, they capitalized, and we didn’t do that.”
It’s becoming a familiar sentiment for Ferentz in games like Saturday’s opener. The three-point defeat was the 13th for the Hawkeyes in the last 18 one-score games dating back to the magical 2009 Orange Bowl season in which Iowa went 11-2.
Since then, Iowa has gone 19-19 in the last three seasons leading up to Saturday, dropping Iowa below .500 since the Hawkeyes’ lone BCS win over Georgia Tech. It was also, remarkably, Iowa’s seventh-straight loss; the longest losing streak since the first two of Ferentz’s 15 seasons as Hawkeye football coach.
“What we choose to do with every day and every opportunity will determine the season, and again, we’ll watch the tapes, but from where I was standing I thought our guys played hard, competed hard,” Ferentz said. “It wasn’t a matter of effort, not a matter of them not being invested. But we just made some mistakes that were tough to overcome, and we’re going to have to do better than that.”
Ward, who led Northern Illinois with 14 tackles on the day, talked about the game-winning interception to set up the winning kick. It was a play that Ward read even before Rudock took the snap.
“Throughout the course of the game, (Iowa) had been hitting a lot of post routes and corner routes. Before that last play, I told myself I had to take that chance to jump one of those,” Ward said. “I had jumped one earlier, but the throw was a little high. On that play, I told myself to take that chance again.”
“We don’t really call it smelling a rat, we call it taking a chance,” first-year Northern Illinois head coach Rod Carey said of the interception, which led to his first career college FBS coaching win. “Jimmie had seen that play a couple times, and so there you are.”
The interception happened right in front of Iowa’s sideline, which gave Ferentz an unfortunate up-close look at the game’s biggest play. The frustrations of another close loss seeped through in the immediate aftermath when asked about the pass play that was called and who the play was called for.
“What did it look like?” Ferentz said responding to a question about who was the target on the intercepted pass. “It was a ball to the sideline that got intercepted. Pretty obvious I thought.”
The loss came after Iowa had taken a 27-20 lead midway through the fourth quarter on Mike Meyer’s 44-yard field goal with 6:42 to go. Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Jordan Lynch, however, rallied Northern Illinois with a six-play, 75-yard drive in just 97 seconds capped by a 33-yard touchdown pass to Da’Ron Brown to tie the game at 27-27 with 5:05 to go.
“(Iowa) gave me a tough time filling in the holes to keep me from running, but we work all season on adjusting during the course of game when that facet isn’t working quite as well,” Lynch said after combining for 331 total yards of offense, including 275 yards passing with three touchdowns. “This is a different team than last year’s (which went 12-2 and went to the Orange Bowl). We knew this going to be tough coming in to a hostile environment, but one thing about this team is offense and defense each has each other’s back.
“We don’t panic. We know if we just try to be ourselves, not anyone else, we know how the outcome is going to come out. It gets you the kind of wins that puts your program on the map.”
In the drive before the Iowa’s game-determining interception, Iowa drove to Northern Illinois’ 43 before the drive stalled, and then and pinned the Huskies inside the 20. After stopping Lynch and NIU on three downs with three lost yards, Iowa got the ball back at its own 45.
Rudock, who had been picked off for the first time in his career earlier in the second half, looked to throw a short sideline pass. Ward jumped the pass at midfield and took off down the sidelines before being hauled down at the 30. Two Cameron Stingily runs set up Sims for the winning kick. A final pass and lateral got Iowa to NIU’s 40 before the final play was blown dead as the game ended.
“You just have to understand at this point there are still 11 more of these left to go,” Rudock, who was 21-37 passing with 256 yards, one passing touchdown, one rushing touchdown and two second-half interceptions. “You can’t let one of these hurt you more than the rest of them. You just have to learn how to bounce right back.”
The 0-1 Hawkeyes will have that bounce-back opportunity back at Kinnick Stadium Saturday when they play host to Missouri State at 11 a.m. The contest will serve not just as a much-needed game to earn the first win for the team since last October’s double-overtime win at Michigan State in the second game of Big Ten play, it will also be a much-needed tune-up with the annual ‘Cy’Hawk game the following week in Ames against Iowa State looming.
Northern Illinois, meanwhile, will get to savor this road win for a couple of weeks. The Huskies still haven’t lost a regular-season game since dropping the season-opener in Chicago to Iowa 18-17 last year and will look to continue that run on Sept. 14 in its 2013 home opener against Idaho.
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