Chad Leistikow and Mark Emmert look at the Hawkeyes' 31-14 win over North Texas and how some newcomers stepped up.
IOWA CITY, Ia. — The word of the day at Kinnick Stadium?
That proved to be sage advice for the players wearing black and gold Saturday.
It’s what the gold-clad fans in the stands could (finally) do after their team survived a genuine scare by a plucky Conference USA opponent.
Iowa 31, North Texas 14.
The score was hardly representative of how difficult the road was to a Hawkeye victory, the third and final leg of an imperfectly perfect start to the nonconference season.
“Not as much of a jubilation,” defensive end Parker Hesse said afterward. “There’s a lot of mistakes."
This was an Iowa team that, for the first 30 minutes, couldn’t find running room against a smaller front that gave up 54 points last week to SMU and had trouble stopping an offense that was cranking out 7.6 yards a play.
Thankfully, halftime happened — but not before backup quarterback Quinn Shanbour found Jalen Guyton for a 13-yard touchdown with 11 seconds left in the second quarter to give North Texas a 14-10 lead.
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“That’s the way football works. The other team prepares,” Hesse said. “They’re going to come ready to play. Sometimes the ball bounces wrong. Calls go whatever. And you keep your poise and keep doing what you’re doing.”
No yelling in the halftime locker room, linebacker Josey Jewell said.
Just a reminder from each other to play tough-minded Iowa football.
"t was more of an attitude change," Hesse said. "We kind of had to look ourselves in the mirror and just decided if we’re going to ride the wave, be up and down all year, or are we going to play Iowa football?
Suddenly, Iowa’s offensive line that was averaging less than three yards a carry started (gradually) moving the North Texas line.
“Just calm down, take a deep a breath and know we’ve done this before,” offensive lineman Keegan Render said. “We’ve seen all the fronts that there can be. Just come off the ball and move ‘em.”
By day's end, the Iowa offense effectively turned this ugly duckling of a game into a swan, running 86 plays to North Texas' 46 and outscoring the Mean Green 21-0 after halftime.
Iowa went 11-for-18 on third downs, 4-for-5 on fourth downs and punted once.
Those numbers don’t look so bad.
“Yeah,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said, “we played a good second half, just in general.”
Unlike Week 3 a year ago against another team wearing green, North Dakota State, Iowa survived with a “0” in the loss column.
Almost every team encounters a survival game like this at some point.
Think Northern Iowa in 2009. Think Arkansas State later that same year. That team turned out all right, with a 9-0 start and Orange Bowl victory.
Think Ball State in 2014. That served to be a warning of bad things to come on the way to 7-5, “That’s football” and a TaxSlayer Bowl mugging.
Which trajectory will this team take from here?
Almost instantly after Saturday’s game, the attention moved to next week’s showdown under the Kinnick lights: 6:30 p.m. vs. Penn State.
Jewell, a guy fueled by past failures, needs no reminder.
“I think we remember that quite a bit,” Jewell said of that 41-14 shellacking in Happy Valley.
Iowa players get a 24-hour rule to enjoy victories before coming back to work Sunday.
Jewell’s time frame might have been reduced to one or two hours.
“A lot of us are probably going to get on it tonight, if we do … and get ahead,” Jewell said, “try to realize what they’ve been running this year, how to stop them.”
Being 3-0 is terrific. That’s where you want to be at this point.
But that’s also where this team is kind of expected to be. Iowa has been favored in all three games to date.
The situation changes next Saturday.
Iowa pulled away from visiting North Texas late in Saturday's game at Kinnick Stadium. Head coach Kirk Ferentz broke down the win with his opening statement after the game. Chris Cuellar / The Register
If Iowa doesn’t get some things fixed soon, it could be an unwelcome sequel to the Penn State drubbing.
There seemed to be some concern in Ferentz’s voice afterward about the pace of progress he’s seeing. He’s been through 18 of these before at Iowa. He knows the signs.
“You watch the film, watch the game and it's obvious we have a lot of work to do right now,” Ferentz said. “And that's what's in front of us. I think probably my biggest concern is (that) we have to improve faster. Seeing some things that need to get addressed.”
The fans who interacted with me on Twitter during the game shared Ferentz’s concern, but in more direct language.
My advice to all of you: Breathe.
This program has shown it can improve from week to week. A year ago, it went from Penn State disaster to Michigan jubilation.
This isn’t time to panic.
The Hawkeyes are undefeated. That’s good.
Now let’s see what happens next.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.