Like most of the other previous MAC attacks that were waged against the Iowa football team, Saturday's came with little warning.
Coach Kirk Ferentz talks about escaping Saturday with a win. Pat Harty / Iowa City Press-Citizen
Ball State entered the game as a 17-point underdog, with a new starting quarterback and with a 0-2 record against Iowa, losing the previous two games in 2005 and 2010 by lopsided scores of 56-0 and 45-0, respectively.
Iowa, on the other hand, entered Saturday's game with renewed confidence after doubling its win total last season from the previous season by winning eight games. The Hawkeyes also had what many feel is the Big Ten's best offensive line, led by all-America candidate Brandon Scherff at left tackle. And they were playing in the friendly confines of home.
And yet, Iowa still was fortunate to prevail 17-13 before an announced crowd of 64,210 at Kinnick Stadium.
The Hawkeyes scored two touchdowns in the final 2 minutes, 52 seconds and barely avoided losing to a team from the Mid-American Conference for the fifth time since 2000.
"Certainly, we're thrilled to get the victory today," said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. "Ball State came in and certainly did what they had to do. They played well. They played hard. And they played a lot cleaner than we did. And credit to them. They were very well prepared. They played a good game.
"I'm just really pleased that our guys hung in there and they fought. And like last week, they responded in some difficult circumstances and got it done in the fourth quarter. Hopefully, this is a win that we'll look back to and say it was a really good day of learning for us."
Iowa improved to 2-0 with the victory and will face Iowa State before a sellout crowd next Saturday at Kinnick Stadium. The Cyclones fell to 0-2 with a 32-28 loss to Kansas State on Saturday in Ames.
The Hawkeyes were trailing 13-3 when the offense finally started clicking in the fourth quarter behind junior quarterback Jake Rudock.
He threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to junior tight end Jake Duzey to make the score 16-13 with 1 minute remaining. True freshman kicker Mick Ellis converted the extra-point kick, giving Iowa a four-point cushion.
"We knew that we were in the game the whole time and we just had to keep going and keep working and stay together as a team out there," Duzey said.
Defensive tackle Carl Davis secured the victory by recovering a fumble at the Ball State 29-yard line with 25 seconds left to play. Junior defensive end Drew Ott was credited with forcing the fumble.
The Iowa defense rose to the occasion in the fourth quarter, forcing Ball State to punt on back-to-back 3-and-out possessions.
Iowa began its dramatic comeback when Rudock connected with redshirt freshman receiver Derrick Willies on a 12-yard touchdown pass with 2:52 left in the fourth quarter. It was Willies' first touchdown as a Hawkeye.
"The safety came down and I cranked it and I knew that when I cranked I was going to be open," Willies said.
Asked how he felt about scoring his first touchdown, Willies said: "I kind of blacked out for a second. Yeah, it was awesome."
Not everything was awesome for Iowa on Saturday, particularly the kicking game and the running game. The Hawkeyes missed three of four field-goal attempts and were held to just 113 rushing yards on 29 carries.
Rudock led Iowa in rushing with just 36 yards on seven carries. Receiver Tevaun Smith led the Hawkeyes in rushing during last Saturday's 31-23 victory over Northern Iowa in the season opener at Kinnick Stadium.
An eerie silence fell over Kinnick Stadium when Scherff collapsed to the ground in the south end zone with an apparent leg injury early in the second quarter. He was injured on the same play that produced Ball State's only touchdown in the game.
It happened when Iowa freshman running back Jonathan Parker dropped a hand-off on a reverse play. Ball State defensive lineman Blake Dueitt scooped up the fumble and rambled 35 yards for a touchdown with 13:08 left in the second quarter.
The 6-foot-5, 320-pound Scherff was injured while trying to prevent Dueitt from scoring a touchdown. Scherff was helped off the field, but he returned to the game later in the second quarter, finally giving Iowa fans something to cheer about.
"It was a great effort play on his part," Ferentz said. "He was just trying to help us out after a turnover. And when he stayed down, that's not a good feeling, obviously. The good news is his knee was stable when they examined it and he's a really tough-minded guy."
Junior Marshall Koehn, who is from Solon, scored Iowa's only points in the first half on a 26-yard field goal with 1:45 left before halftime. However, he also missed field-goal attempts from 35 and 37 yards in the first half.
True freshman Mick Ellis replaced Koehn on field goals in the third quarter, but Ellis missed his only attempt from 29 yards.
"There is nothing we can do other than just keep working at it," Ferentz said of the kicking game.
Iowa's vaunted power rushing attack was virtually non-existent in the first half, producing just 24 rushing yards on 15 attempts. Junior Jordan Canzeri provided a spark in the third quarter with runs of 7 and 17 yards on the same drive, but that drive ended with Ellis' missed field-goal attempt.
"It just didn't look good," Ferentz said when asked if there was a problem with Iowa's running game. "Part of it was it appeared to me, at least from the sidelines, they weren't going to let us run the ball the way we want to."
"They had an excellent plan. We didn't establish anything really in the run game, especially in the first half. We're going to really have to look hard at that. But I thought we adjusted better in the third quarter."
The fact that Rudock threw a career-high 52 passes on Saturday was a direct result of Iowa's rushing woes. He completed a career-high 33 passes for a career-high 322 yards. The Weston, Fla., native also rushed for 32 yards on Iowa's final two drives.
"It's a by-product of where we're at and the way we were playing," Ferentz said of Rudock's heavy passing load. "We were really fortunate to be down by the score we were down at that point based on what we had done.
"The defense is what kept us in it and gave us a chance to be in there."
Reach Pat Harty at 339-7370 or email@example.com.