Brown: Only good news for Hawkeyes is that they won
IOWA CITY, Ia. – Fifty-seven minutes into the game, Iowa had scored three points. Hardly a blueprint for winning football.
Many fans were dressed as empty seats when Iowa got possession of the ball at its own 31-yard line with 5 minutes, 52 seconds to play and the seemingly dead-in-the-water Hawkeyes trailing Ball State, 13-3.
Raise your hand if you saw two Jake Rudock touchdown passes in the final 2 minutes 52 seconds and a 17-13 victory coming. Anyone? I didn't think so.
But that's what happened. Iowa appeared a lock to lose to a Mid-American Conference team for the third straight year at Kinnick Stadium.
It didn't happen, thanks to the Rudock-led rally.
But this was a victory that doesn't mask the Hawkeyes' issues. There are plenty to choose from.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz wanted to see significant improvement from Week 1 to Week 2, something that didn't happen last season. It didn't happen Saturday, either. And that was a major disappointment.
"I didn't see this one coming," Ferentz admitted.
Rudock threw for a career-best 322 yards, but the offense continues to search for an identity and wasn't in sync until the final 3 minutes.
"Clearly, we've got to figure this out," Ferentz said.
The defense did its part, didn't allow a touchdown and surrendered just 219 yards. Ball State had lost by a combined 101-0 on its previous two trips to Kinnick, in 2005 and 2010. The Cardinals' offense still hasn't reached the end zone.
After Northern Iowa torched the Hawkeyes for eight pass plays or 20 yards or more a week ago, Ball State had just one. Hawkeye defensive end Drew Ott had a career-best 13 tackles, and forced a Ball State fumble that teammate Carl Davis fell on with :25 left to seal it. Ott was a one-man wrecking crew all game.
But the Hawkeyes were very hospitable most of the afternoon on a Chamber of Commerce day, and it nearly cost them. Two fumbles by Iowa freshman Jonathan Parker resulted in 10 Ball State points. On the first one, Ball State defensive lineman Blake Dueitt scooped it up and rambled 35 yards for a touchdown.
Adding insult to injury, Iowa Outland Trophy candidate Brandon Scherff was down in the Iowa end zone. The 320-pounder gamely tried to catch the 266-pound Dueitt. He left the game with a knee injury, but returned. And that looked like it would be Iowa's biggest victory of the day.
All that talk about Iowa needing to shore up its kicking game before it became costly? The Hawkeyes attempted four field goals, all of them from inside 40 yards. Iowa was 1-for-4.
After missing two of three attempts, Marshall Koehn was replaced by Mick Ellis. He missed a 29-yarder. When Ellis made a point-after kick with 2:52 remaining, after Rudock's touchdown pass to Derrick Willies had started the furious final rally, the crowd gave him a Bronx cheer.
"We'll keep chipping away, and let those guys compete," Ferentz said.
After the defense forced a three-and-out, Rudock marched the Hawkeyes downfield again. Ball State's defense was gassed, and not able to put any pressure on Iowa's quarterback. The Cardinals were in a deep zone, and Rudock, with all kinds of time to throw, riddled them with his arm and his legs.
As the Hawkeyes marched into field-goal range, the pessimist in the crowd – and there were a lot of them – figured that Iowa needed to score a touchdown since a field goal to force overtime was hardly a sure thing.
"I'm not sure confidence is the word I'd use," Ferentz said, adding that he didn't know who he would have sent in to attempt a field goal.
Ferentz didn't have to make that decision after Rudock found tight end Jake Duzey for the winning touchdown from 12 yards out with a minute left. In the last two drives, Rudock completed nine of 11 passes for 81 yards, and ran for 32 more.
"Hopefully that's a positive coming out of the game," Ferentz said of the late rally.
Rudock also had career highs with 52 attempts and 33 completions. Fifty-two passes wasn't part of the game plan.
"It's a by-product of where we're at and the way we were playing," Ferentz said.
It was the result of gaining just 113 yards in 29 carries. Iowa's power game, a staple of Ferentz-coached teams, was again missing in action.
I thought the offense would carry the defense early in the season. Boy, was I wrong.
Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.