IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa lost again last weekend, its seventh straight defeat dating to last season and its first in an opener in 13 years.
And yes, it came against MAC school Northern Illinois, a team the Hawkeyes had beaten eight times in a row. It didn't help that the game swung on a late interception by new quarterback Jake Rudock.
But don't mistake a loss for lost confidence.
Even in defeat, the Hawkeyes (0-1) showed signs that the misery of last season soon could be a thing of the past.
Rudock played well in his debut. The running game showed signs of progress and Iowa's defense appears to be in decent shape heading into Saturday's game with FCS school Missouri State. There are hopes of ending a losing streak that has hung over the program for nearly 11 months.
"There were an awful lot of good things out there that were being done. I thought we moved around well on defense. Certainly on offense, we did some things better than we've done," coach Kirk Ferentz said.
The biggest mystery surrounding the rebuilding Hawkeyes was Rudock, a sophomore who took his first career college snap on Saturday. Despite tossing the game-deciding interception, Rudock looked like the right pick for the starting job.
Rudock threw for 256 yards and a touchdown on 21 of 37 passing. He showed nice arm strength on a pair of long completions; a flea flicker to Jordan Cotton for 53 yards and a seam route to the speedy Damond Powell for 49 yards, and decent feet when he ran for a 6-yard TD to close out the first half.
Rudock did have two interceptions; including one that was tipped at the line, but Ferentz praised his presence and composure.
"I think, for the most part, Jake really handled things well. His demeanor on the sideline was good. He was calm and confident. The feedback we got from him was really accurate," Ferentz said. "His awareness was real good, so I thought it was a real positive first step for him."
As expected, Iowa split carries between the bruising Mark Weisman and the more versatile Damon Bullock. That plan was a success in the opener, as Weisman and Bullock combined for 176 yards on 37 carries without any runs longer than 15 yards.
The Hawkeyes will likely lean heavily on their ground game in 2013. Their offensive line and backs should be strengths, and question marks remain about their ability to consistently create big plays in the passing game.
Obviously, it's hard to heap much praise on a defense that gave up 30 points and failed to get an interception or a sack. But the Hawkeyes certainly looked more active in the opener and Northern Illinois is favored to win a third straight MAC title for a reason.
Iowa's senior linebacker trio seemed to be constantly near the ball, and Christian Kirksey provided a spark with his 52-yard fumble return for a TD in the first half. The defensive line also was strong against the run, containing Huskies dual-threat star Jordan Lynch to just 56 yards rushing on 22 carries.
"There were some positives. I thought we played hard. We were going in the right direction all the time? I don't know," senior linebacker James Morris said. "But there was definitely something to build off of."
Iowa bottomed out so thoroughly in 2012, losing its last six games, that the journey back to contention likely won't be quick. Though the Hawkeyes nearly pulled out a victory, they let Northern Illinois convert the late plays that proved to be the difference.
If Iowa wants to stop finding progress in losses and celebrate wins instead, it has to be the team making the crucial plays.
"The next step is, you have to learn how to win. Looking backward, there were a couple of opportunities Saturday where we were real close, I felt like we were close, to maybe turning the game and just couldn't quite get it done," Ferentz said. "A lot of near misses. But those are the things that keep you from moving forward."
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