CHICAGO According to the Internet, the surest way to get rid of a curse is through prayer.
For the Iowa Hawkeyes, sophomore running back Damon Bullock was the answer to their prayers on Saturday, and his 23-yard scamper to the end zone provided salvation for Iowa in an 18-17 win over Northern Illinois.
“I saw daylight and I just ran as hard as I could,” Bullock said. “When you finally see it, you’ve got to hit it.”
Iowa (1-0) trailed most of a gray and dreary day at Soldier Field against Northern Illinois (0-1). Only a divine special teams play by senior Greg Castillo and Bullock’s breakout kept the Hawkeyes from being upset to open the season. Iowa has not lost an opener since 2000.
Trailing 17-12 late in the fourth quarter, the Iowa offense stalled at the NIU 44-yard-line.
Senior John Wienke, called on to try his first career punt, pooched it inside the 10-yard-line. After a couple bounces, senior Greg Castillo corralled it and kept it from rolling into the end zone.
“I saw the ball, and I touched it,” Castillo said. “It’s that easy.”
The Huskies had to try to work out of the shadow of the end zone and couldn’t escape. NIU punter Ryan Neir, with his feet near the back line, tapped his punt 34 yards to Iowa senior Micah Hyde, who had an 11-yard return.
That set up Iowa on the NIU 24-yard line with 3:41 to play.
After a first-down rush by Bullock went nowhere and a second-down pass from James Vandenberg to Zach Derby went for just 1 yard, Iowa made a gutsy call on third-and-9.
“It was a play we talked about at halftime,” Ferentz said. “Greg (Davis) pulled it out of his pocket at an opportune moment.”
It was a counter run, and it caught the Huskies off guard.
“They had been running zone and first and second down, and we stopped them both,” NIU coach Dave Doeren said. “I think our kids were expecting pass. They creased us. It was a good play call by them.”
Bullock took the ball and raced untouched to the end zone.
“I was surprised (by the call), but I was ready,” Bullock said.
It was the cherry on top of a breakout game for the sophomore from Mansfield, Texas.
He finished with 150 yards on 30 carries in his first start at Iowa.
It certainly was a long way from his freshman season, when he split time between running back and receiver.
Often assigned afterthought status on the Iowa running back depth chart, Bullock kept at it over the past 12 months. Like Iowa was under a bizarre curse, one running back after another either left the program or got hurt.
Bullock was listed as the starter this summer, but many still wondered if perhaps true freshmen Greg Garmon or Barkley Hill might eclipse him.
“I knew what I could do,” Bullock said. “I didn’t buy into the media. I was just trying to stay focused.”
Ferentz had even said earlier in the week Iowa would try to use three running backs.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Ferentz said. “He’s a very young player. I don’t think he had many yards last season (10 carries, 20 yards).
“Just for him to play for almost the entire game, for him to carry the load, … it was muggy out there today. I was worried about that.”
Just 195 pounds, Bullock carried the ball 30 times for a Hawkeye offense that couldn’t find its rhythm in the passing game.
Iowa had several methodical drives but had to settle for field goals. Junior Mike Meyer hit 4-of-5, including a career-long 50-yard boot in the fourth quarter to pull Iowa within five points.
Quarterback James Vandenberg finished 21-of-33 for 129 yards passing. Kevonte Martin Manley had six catches for 31 yards, and Keenan Davis had five grabs for 41 yards.
“I’ve got a long way to go,” Vandenberg said. “I think the offense as a whole felt out of sync a lot of times.”
Northern Illinois passed for just 54 yards but was effective running it, particularly with junior quarterback Jordan Lynch, who had 119 yards on 18 carries. That included a 73-yard touchdown run in the third quarter that had Hawkeye fans singing the blues.
“I thought we held our own,” Lynch said. “A few plays didn’t fall in our hands sometimes.”
Iowa improved to 19-2 against the Mid-American Conference.
The Hawkeyes have little time to savor the come-from-behind win. Iowa State (1-0) comes to Iowa City for a 2:30 p.m. kickoff at Kinnick Stadium.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football