Leistikow: Hawkeyes aren't even bullies of MVFC

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The Kinnick Stadium scoreboard told only part of the stunning story.

North Dakota State 23, Iowa 21 conceals the truth behind an outcome that shook college football Saturday: This game wasn’t really that close.

“This will hurt for a while,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.

The FCS Bison controlled the line of scrimmage against an FBS program that prides itself on developing linemen who push people around.

The second-half ledger: North Dakota State 203 rushing yards, Iowa minus-7.

Bullies of the Big Ten? Not even Bullies of the Missouri Valley Football Conference on this day.

Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard took a lot of hits against North Dakota State. The Hawkeyes were not good in the trenches on Saturday in a 23-21 loss to North Dakota State.

“These guys came prepared to win in Kinnick,” Iowa defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson said. “And that’s what they did.”

Bison roam free with run game in upset of Iowa

Of course, North Dakota State deserves heaping piles of credit. But no FCS team, even one that's won five straight national championships, should ever come into Kinnick and beat a team that’s supposed to win the Big Ten West.

Unless (gasp) this wasn’t a championship-caliber team — and just an ordinary one — that the Bison defeated.

Therein lies the biggest question to emerge Saturday: Who are these Hawkeyes?

Are they a chip off the old block of the 2015 team that walked out of Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb., in November with a 12-0 regular-season record?

Or are they the Hawkeyes who are 2-3 in their last five games — with opponent rushing-yardage totals of 174, 206, 158, 126 and 239?

What happens next will deliver the answer.

“There's really not a lot of value that takes place when you do lose a game,” Ferentz said, “other than if you learn from it.”

It didn’t take long Saturday for fans to fire up their social-media accounts and bring up Ferentz’s recently signed, $49.5 million contract to be Iowa’s coach through the 2025 season.

One of the reasons Ferentz was awarded that lucrative deal was because he’s got a track record of turning September setbacks into Novembers to remember.

The 2002 team lost at home to Iowa State before going 8-0 in the Big Ten to share a league championship.

The 2004 team was blitzed 44-6 at Arizona State in a loss far more embarrassing than this one and got hot in October and November to share a Big Ten title and win the Capital One Bowl.

Even the 2009 team that would go 11-2 and win the Orange Bowl had a harrowing game against an FCS school that came down to a last-second field-goal attempt. Except that one (well, two) against Northern Iowa was blocked for an Iowa win; Saturday’s 37-yarder by Cam Pedersen split the South End Zone uprights for an Iowa loss.

Why did Iowa even schedule upset-ready North Dakota State?

But for the 2016 Hawkeyes (2-1) to reach those heights, as many have predicted, they can't repeat Saturday's failures.

Consecutive fourth-quarter offensive plays provided an unflattering snapshot.

On third-and-3 from North Dakota State's 44 with Iowa holding a 21-14 fourth-quarter lead, Lucas LeGrand's snap to C.J. Beathard went wide, resulting in an unforced 8-yard loss and punt.

Even after North Dakota State turned that mistake into six points, Iowa still had a chance to put this one away with a few first downs. But on first down, LeShun Daniels Jr. was tackled by an invisible turf monster for a 2-yard loss. Another punt followed two plays later, and Iowa never got the ball back.

Silly stuff that, if corrected, would've masked Iowa's leaky defense and poor up-front play.

"The lesson there is if you do that against a good football team," Ferentz said, "you're typically going to pay for it."

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Now, the only choice ahead is to try to be better next week.

“There’s going to be a lot of things to correct, a lot of things to fix,” quarterback C.J. Beathard said after taking a beating from the Bison pass rush. “We’ve just got to move past it.”

The good news for Iowa is that the opening to its Big Ten schedule offers opportunity.

Next up, a trip to Rutgers — a team that trailed Howard by two touchdowns last week and had to rally past New Mexico on Saturday.

If the Hawkeyes can’t win that one, then calling them ordinary would seem like a compliment.

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.