Wine: Some Chicago Surprises

Sept. 4, 2007

Let’s hear it for Gary Barta, the shrewd athletic director who had the foresight not to schedule Appalachian State as Iowa’s 12th opponent this season. Is that good judgment or what?

While we’re at it, someone phone the Big Ten office to complain about Michigan not being on the Hawkeyes’ schedule. How come we don’t get to play the Wolverines when they’re having an off year? Also, somebody contact Notre Dame to see if the Irish have a date to fill.

On the other hand, let’s face reality. Michigan and Notre Dame are not on Iowa’s 2007 schedule. Thankfully, neither is Appalachian State.

The opponent that was there for Iowa’s opening game last Saturday was Northern Illinois. The Hawkeyes were a two-touchdown favorite and won 16-3, making themselves and the sports books in Las Vegas look good.

The game was played at Soldier Field in Chicago and drew a sellout crowd of 62,000. On the same afternoon, just north of downtown, a capacity crowd of 40,000 watched the Cubs lose to the Astros at Wrigley Field.

Two games, played at approximately the same time, drew more than 100,000 fans. Chicago is a good sports town.

Give credit to Hawkeye fanatics for the sellout at Soldier Field. At least 40,000 Iowa supporters were in attendance. That number is 24,000 more than showed up to watch Northwestern win its home opener, also played Saturday afternoon. Evanston is not such a good sports town.

There were some pleasant surprises in Iowa’s 13-point victory over a Mid-America Conference opponent, the most obvious the emergence of a strong running game.

I cannot recall the Hawkeyes opening a season with a more inexperienced offensive line, but after an unproductive first quarter, Iowa’s ground game came to life and put some big numbers on the board against a veteran Northern Illinois defense.

Iowa totaled 250 yards rushing, all but 14 in the final three quarters. Albert Young and Damian Sims both had big games running behind a line that includes three starters who have never lettered. Sophomores Kyle Calloway and Andy Kuempel, and freshman Julian Vandervelde got stronger as the game wore on, as did veterans Rafael Eubanks and Seth Olson.

No turnovers were a big plus in Iowa’s victory. There were no fumbles by the running backs or receivers, no botched handoffs, and no intercepted passes — pretty amazing in an opening game by an offensive unit that returned only five starters.

The Hawkeyes also produced some big plays, and two were instrumental in touchdowns. Andy Brodell’s 56-yard punt return set up the first TD. Jake Christensen’s 40-yard pass to James Cleveland was the big play in the second.

Iowa’s defense played a huge roll in the victory, limiting the Huskies to 21 rushing yards and keeping them out of the end zone. With the running game stopped, Northern Illinois threw 42 passes and three were intercepted. Charles Godfrey had two thefts, one at the goal line that stopped a scoring drive.

The Hawkeyes appeared to be a superbly conditioned team. On a hot, sunny afternoon they got stronger as the game got longer. As the game wore on, Iowa wore the Huskies down.

But there are problems to address in the Hawkeye camp this week. As Coach Kirk Ferentz likes to say, “We’ve got some things to clean up.”

Like the 10 penalties – most of them major – that cost Iowa 117 yards, 30 of that total in the first two minutes.

And eight dropped passes, six of them by veterans Brodell and Tony Moeaki. New quarterback Jack Christensen performed well enough, but it’s hard to sustain drives when receivers are butter fingered. Fortunately Iowa’s running game was working on a day when the passing game was not.

Ferentz has emphasized he wants better performance from his special teams this season, but there is still a lot of work to be done there. Austin Signor missed two of three field goals and an extra point. Ryan Donahue’s punting was erratic, although he averaged 40 yards and had one boot of 57 yards.

Kick coverage was decent, but not exceptional. It is obvious that kicking off from the 30-yard line – a new rule – is going to have a big impact. Few kicks will sail out of the end zone, and field position after kickoff has the potential to improve dramatically.

Iowa coaches can accentuate the positive while eliminating the negative, which is true after most season openers. The important thing is the Hawkeyes went on the road and came home with a decisive victory, and without any serious injuries.

Saturday night, A capacity crowd will be on hand to cheer them on against Syracuse at Kinnick Stadium, where they used to be unbeatable until losing three times there last year. Coach Ferentz might remind them of that.

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