IOWA CITY — When you play with fire, eventually you’re going to get burned.
North Dakota State, the top-ranked winners of the last five national titles in the Football Championship Subdivision, left 13th-ranked Iowa and its 14-game regular-season win streak in the ashes Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.
Cam Pedersen’s 37-yard field goal as time expired was the difference, forcing the Hawkeyes to stomach a 23-21 loss and setting off a wild celebration by the Bison and more than 7,000 of their fans who were part of a sellout crowd of 70,585.
“It still hasn’t sunk in yet, but what a win,’’ said Pedersen, who had missed a 50-yard attempt earlier in the fourth quarter. “What a team win. We never doubted ourselves. We just kept fighting.’’
The Bison took the fight right at the Hawkeyes.
North Dakota State found enough holes in the Iowa defense to pile up 239 of its 363 yards on the ground while stuffing the Hawkeyes’ run game, limiting Iowa to 34 rushing yards.
“We didn’t play Iowa football, and that’s what stinks the most,’’ quarterback C.J. Beathard said. “We didn’t play our game. We weren’t ourselves.’’
From the start, it was a struggle against an opponent that has now taken down the last six teams it has faced from the Football Bowl Subdivision and proved more than ready to hand Iowa its first loss in 14 games against an FCS opponent.
The Bison scored the game’s first points when MJ Stumpf returned the Hawkeyes’ first turnover in three games this season, an interception thrown by Beathard, for a 21-yard touchdown late in the first quarter.
But even after Beathard threw touchdowns passes of 30 yards to Riley McCarron and 14 yards to Matt VandeBerg to take a 14-7 lead into the locker room at halftime, coach Kirk Ferentz was uneasy.
Dropped passes, the struggle to move the ball on the ground and problems in slowing the North Dakota State offense replaced the crisp offensive execution and defensive successes Ferentz had enjoyed in two season-opening wins.
“We had really played clean football, sharp football in our first two games. That was not the case today,’’ Ferentz said. “Those costly errors, those little detail things, they ended up catching us in the end and made a big difference. If you do that against a good football team, you’re typically going to pay.’’
The Bison were ready to make that happen.
North Dakota State quarterback Easton Stick attempted only six passes in the second half, completing four, but the Bison utilized the abilities of six ball carriers over the final two quarters to wear down the Iowa defense.
The Hawkeyes did take a 21-14 lead into the final quarter, breaking a tie score on a drive that saw backup quarterback Nathan Stanley complete two passes for 45 yards when Beathard was forced off the field after injuring his left shoulder while scrambling for a four-yard gain on a third-and-three play.
Beathard returned to hit VandeBerg with a 9-yard touchdown pass with 2 minutes, 12 seconds left in the third quarter but Iowa did not pick up another first down the rest of the game.
North Dakota State didn’t give Iowa much of a chance.
Five different backs taxed the Hawkeye defense on the first five runs called during a 15-play, 80-yard drive which ran 8:39 off of the clock in the fourth quarter. It resulted in fullback Chase Morlock grabbing a 7-yard touchdown pass from Stick with 3:41 left in the game.
“We couldn’t get them off the field,’’ defensive tackle Faith Ekakitie said. “We couldn’t get them stopped. That’s the frustrating thing.’’
Sensing that frustration, Bison coach Chris Klieman opted to attempt a two-point conversion following Morlock’s score and with his team down 21-20. While Stick’s pass was tipped in the end zone and fell incomplete, Klieman sent his team a message with that decision.
“We came here to win,’’ Klieman said. “… I thought our offense was wearing them down and if we could get a stop, I felt we could dial up enough plays to get us in field goal range.’’
That’s exactly how it played out.
LeShun Daniels, who led Iowa with 29 yards on 14 carries, lost two yards on first down and got only one of them back on the ensuing carry before the Bison’s Robbie Grimsley buried Beathard for a nine-yard loss on third down to force the punt.
North Dakota State (3-0) started at its own 34, but didn’t stay there for long as Stick sprinted for 29 yards before connecting with RJ Urzendowski for a 10-yard gain to the Iowa 27-yard line. After Morlock carried to the 20, Pedersen lined up and ended the Hawkeyes' hopes of taking a 3-0 record into Big Ten play.
“It’s not what any of us expected, to lose a game like this,’’ said Iowa strong safety Brandon Snyder, who recorded his first career interception in the opening quarter. “I’m not shocked. They’re a good team, but I’m more upset because we didn’t finish the way we wanted to. We’ve got to be a hungrier team.’’