What we learned from Iowa's 33-7 win over Northern Illinois

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central
Iowa running back Ivory Kelly-Martin runs the ball against Northern Illinois on Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

IOWA CITY, Ia. — It took some time to warm the engines up, but Iowa finally got things humming in a productive fashion.

The Hawkeyes pulled away from Northern Illinois with three second-half touchdowns, kicking off the 2018 season with a 33-7 win at Kinnick Stadium. The victory is Kirk Ferentz’s 144th at Iowa, moving him into first place in school history.

After an uninspiring first half that saw countless miscues, a blocked punt and up-and-down linebacker play, the Hawkeyes (1-0) found their footing after the break. The Iowa defense was suffocating. The offense discovered a rhythm.

A short fourth-down touchdown pass to Noah Fant handed the Hawkeyes a 10-0 lead midway through the third, and rushing scores from Ivory Kelly-Martin and Toren Young put the game away.

Here’s what we learned:

All alone up top

Ferentz dodged record-setting questions all week, but they’re officially prevalent after Saturday’s win. The 20-year Iowa coach is now all alone atop the record book, passing Hayden Fry with win No. 144.

Ferentz’s longevity is something rarely seen in today’s college football landscape, where coaching changes and job hopping dominate the headlines. It takes sustained success to last this long in one spot. Saturday was another reminder of what Ferentz has delivered.

"People come here from all walks of life — big cities, small towns, big schools, little schools, 8-man programs, 11-man programs — and they may or may not have had that guidance in the past," offensive tackle Levi Paulsen said. "But they step into this thing and it's like, 'Wow, he's almost like your dad.' You see him every single day, and he's always valuing who you are as a person."    

Running back committee rejuvenates offense

Young had the preseason buzz. Kelly-Martin headed the depth chart. Mekhi Sargent was one of the more hyped newcomers.

At the end of the day, Iowa’s running back showing mirrored what Ferentz said it would be — a committee.

Kelly-Martin got the bulk of the first-half action and finished with a team-high 16 carries. Sargent was mixed in early and helped close it out. And it was Young who rejuvenated a sputtering offense with a pair of explosive runs.

A 40-yard scamper on the Hawkeyes’ second third-quarter drive was their long play of the day, helping set up the Fant TD. He then ripped off a 24-yard spring on the ensuing drive that led to a Kelly-Martin score.

"I try to just have an edge, an attitude when I run," Young said. I didn't know when I'd get my shot, but I just wanted to be prepared for my teammates when I did." 

The trio finished with 186 yards on 36 touches. It’s to be determined if one back eventually emerges over the others, but Saturday proved the committee approach can work.

Backup tackles hold up

For as dissected as Iowa’s offensive line shuffling was preseason, the Week One suspensions weren’t much of a factor in the end. Backup tackles Dalton Ferguson, Paulsen and Mark Kallenberger held up well in place of the suspended Tristan Wirfs and Alaric Jackson.

Ferguson opened at left tackle and Paulsen at right, even though Kallenberger was listed as the starting left tackle on this week’s depth charter. The Bettendorf product eventually saw some extended action in the first half and third quarter.

All three had a tough task in handling heralded defensive end Sutton Smith and Northern Illinois’ strong defensive line. Smith finished with five tackles, one sack and a TFL, but he wasn't a consistently disruptive force as he’s been in the past.

Iowa will get Jackson and Wirfs back against Iowa State, and they’ll likely slide back into their starting roles. The backups, though, held up in their absence.

"All of us were worried being shorthanded going in," Ferentz said, "but again, the thing that made us feel a little better was watching (the backups) in practice. All three of those guys really practiced well the last two weeks." 

Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.