IOWA CITY — When it mattered most, Iowa thrived and survived Saturday.
Northern Iowa threw a 31-23 scare at the Hawkeyes in the season opener for both teams, forcing Iowa into a four-quarter tussle in front of a crowd of 66,805 at Kinnick Stadium.
“We’ve got an awful lot to work on, but when we needed to make plays at the end, we made them,’’ linebacker Quinton Alston said. “We stood up in the fourth quarter and got it done.’’
Coach Kirk Ferentz described the game as the type of challenge he expected the Panthers and their collection of 18 returning starters to present.
“We’ve been involved in a lot of close games the past few years and that is the nature of college football anymore,’’ Ferentz said. “This was pretty much 60 minutes of turmoil and we might as well get used to it because that is usually how it goes. We have a lot of guys who haven’t played much football around here and for them to go through that and survive, that’s a good thing.’’
Clinton’s David Johnson, a preseason all-American back at the Football Championship Subdivision level, presented plenty of problems as he slipped behind the Iowa defense to collect 203 receiving yards on his five catches, an effort he complemented with a team-leading 34 rushing yards.
Johnson reached the end zone just once, catching a Sawyer Kollmorgen pass over the middle for a 70-yard touchdown that pulled Northern Iowa within 24-20 just over five minutes into the second half.
UNI inched even closer on Michael Schmadeke’s third field goal of the game, hitting from 38 yards with 12 minutes, 42 seconds remaining to leave the Hawkeyes clinging to a 24-23 lead.
Iowa’s defense rose to the occasion.
Limiting an offense which piled up 374 yards in the game’s first three quarters to 31 yards in the fourth, the Hawkeyes forced a pair of three-and-outs before Greg Mabin ended his first start in the Iowa secondary with an interception at the Hawkeye 31-yard line on a fourth-down play with 1:00 remaining.
“I was in the right place at the right time,’’ Mabin said. “We needed to make a play to keep them off the board and I was able to get that done and help us get the win.’’
Ferentz believes the experience of a four-quarter battle could ultimately benefit the Hawkeyes.
“I liked our resiliency,’’ Ferentz said. “We didn’t have any choice, but sometimes you don’t answer, either. I think the guys amped it up in the fourth quarter after struggling. It wasn’t much fun there for a while.’’
Johnson said the Panthers’ objective was to keep the heat on the Hawkeyes.
“The idea was to come out and score, get a stop and then come out and score again,’’ he said. “We felt like we could have that kind of game.’’
Northern Iowa hurt itself with penalties.
The Panthers were flagged 16 times for 128 yards. Six of those penalties came on drives which resulted in Hawkeye points.
“We didn’t help ourselves,’’ Johnson said.
Iowa struggled at times as well, although the feet of Tevaun Smith, arm of Jake Rudock and the hands of Derrick Willies helped deny Northern Iowa a chance to earn its first win over the Hawkeyes since 1898.
Smith successfully executed a reverse, then weaved his way through the UNI defense for a momentum-swinging 35-yard gain on Iowa’s first snap in the second half.
A facemask penalty on the play moved the ball to UNI 11-yard line and three plays later Smith scored on a 6-yard pass from Rudock to extend Iowa’s 17-13 halftime lead.
“That play really set a tone, got us going at the start of the third quarter,’’ said Rudock, who completed a career-high 31 passes in 41 attempts.
The junior connected with 13 receivers and threw for 250 yards, six shy of his previous career high set in Iowa’s 2013 season-opening loss to Northern Illinois.
“This feels a lot better than that one did,’’ Rudock said. “UNI challenged us and we knew they would. They forced us to make plays and we made the plays we needed to make. We’re far from a finished product, but we found a way to win and that’s important, too.’’
The Hawkeyes weren’t certain of that until after Willies, a redshirt freshman from Rock Island, stretched as he wrapped his arms around his first collegiate catch for a 46-yard gain that moved the ball to the UNI 8-yard line midway through the fourth quarter.
“It felt good to be out there, making a difference in a game,’’ Willies said. “Jake’s throwing a great ball and I was able to get to it. I wasn’t going to let it slip through my hands.’’
Two plays later, Damond Powell scored on a 12-yard bubble screen from Rudock with 6:50 left that provided Iowa with its winning margin.
“We did just enough to win a tough game,’’ Iowa offensive lineman Brandon Scherff said. “You can learn a lot from a game like this.’’