Iowa hangs on to down Rutgers in Big Ten opener

Mark Emmert
Iowa safety Brandon Snyder recovers a fumble as teammates Greg Mabin, left, and Parker Hesse, top, celebrate in the fourth quarter at Rutgers.

PISCATAWAY, N.J. – The football hung in the air, the game hung in the balance, and Brandon Snyder hung tough.

The turning point in Saturday’s 14-7 Iowa victory over Rutgers was a simple matter of will. Snyder, the Hawkeyes’ sophomore safety, simply had more of it than Scarlet Knights receiver Andre Patton, forcing and recovering a fumble with 8:42 left in a tie game. Tailback Akrum Wadley darted into the end zone from 26 yards out one play later and the No. 25 Hawkeyes escaped a second consecutive upset attempt to down Rutgers in the teams’ first-ever meeting before an announced crowd of 44,061 at High Point Solutions Stadium.

“He just ran an underneath route and I cut it on the back side. Didn’t know whether or not to play the ball in the air and I couldn’t get there in time. Ended up making kind of a hit and stood him up a little bit and just started fighting the ball,” Snyder said. “We needed a takeaway, we need a turnover, a spark. That kind of provided it a little bit.”

Snyder’s spark turned in to Wadley’s flame. The junior from nearby Newark, playing in front of his family, his former coach at Weequahic High School and that entire football team, scored untouched on a basic sweep play that hadn’t worked in two previous tries.

Wadley burst around the left side of the line, picking up terrific blocks from fullback Drake Kulick and wide receiver Jerminic Smith. It was his patience to wait for those blocks that proved pivotal.

“The first one, I cut back too early. The second one, I went outside, there was a holding penalty,” Wadley said. “(Offensive line) coach Brian Ferentz, he told me to just read it and that’s exactly what I did, hit the hole and it was just to the races.

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“It was a big changing point in the game. Our defense held the up the whole game. We’ve just got to help them out, we’ve got to put some points up.”

The touchdown didn’t seal the victory in a harder-than-anticipated Big Ten Conference opener. Iowa’s defense, which bent all game, made a big stand on fourth-and-2 at its 17-yard line to get the ball back with 4:40 left. The offense, with Rutgers (2-2, 0-1 Big Ten) out of timeouts, then picked up two first downs to drain the clock while Wadley ran to the stands to celebrate with the 40 people who came to see him shine.

Sep 24, 2016; Piscataway, NJ, USA;  Iowa Hawkeyes running back Akrum Wadley (25) runs for a touchdown during the second half at High Points Solutions Stadium. Iowa defeated Rutgers 14-7.  Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Wadley finished with 122 yards on 14 touches.

But it was another choppy performance by the Iowa offense, a week after the Hawkeyes faded in the fourth quarter and lost 23-21 to North Dakota State. Quarterback C.J. Beathard, unable to locate open receivers most of the game, completed only 12-of-23 passes for 162 yards. The Hawkeyes were forced to punt seven times.  Their season-low points total matched the amount that Howard scored here against Rutgers two weeks ago.

The game was scoreless until the waning minutes of the first half. That’s when Rutgers drove to the Iowa 3-yard line on a 76-yard catch and run by star receiver Janarion Grant, a play that included missed tackles by Iowa safety Miles Taylor and cornerback Desmond King. King finally slapped Grant down on the far sideline. It was Grant’s longest career gain, but also his final play of the game as he departed with an apparent ankle injury.

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Iowa middle linebacker Josey Jewell took over from there, making tackles on three successive plays to keep Rutgers stuck in place and giving the Hawkeyes (3-1, 1-0) the ball at their 1-yard line with 2:04 left.

Beathard ran 13 yards on the first play, and Iowa took advantage of that breathing room to mount a touchdown drive, rather than merely playing to run out the clock.  Beathard found tight end George Kittle for a 20-yard gain, ran for 12 more and eventually lofted a pass to an uncovered Kittle on the near sideline. Kittle made a nifty move on a defender and plunged into the end zone for a 36-yard score.

“There’s plenty that wasn’t pretty (Saturday), but that was an excellent effort by our guys digging in there and getting the ball,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of the defensive stand.

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Just as NDSU did last week, Rutgers started to impose its will on Iowa in the second half. The Scarlet Knights drove 88 yards in 13 plays -- their best sequence of the season -- to tie the score 7-7 with 12:45 left in the game on a 14-yard pass from Chris Laviano to Patton.

Iowa followed with its ugliest possession of the game -- two sacks of Beathard surrounding an incompletion -- and quickly punted. Rutgers, a two-touchdown underdog, had all the momentum then. But Iowa defensive end Parker Hesse sacked Laviano to bring up a third-and-16 play, and Snyder stepped in to turn the game around.

“These guys didn’t really hold the ball as well, the receivers, so we knew we’d have the chance to get the ball out,” King said. “And Brandon kept fighting for the ball and the ball came out.”

Sep 24, 2016; Piscataway, NJ, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes quarterback C.J. Beathard (16) drops back to pass during the first half of their game against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at High Points Solutions Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports