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Rick Brown: For Hawkeye program, beating Northern Illinois is a must

[ 0 ] August 27, 2013 |

IOWA CITY – It’s strange to call a season opener a must win. Especially when the calendar still reads August.

But if Iowa’s football team wants to polish the program’s rusted reputation, erase the lingering hangover of 2012 and return to their bowling ways, a win against a salty Northern Illinois team is a must Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz stopped short of calling the game against the Huskies, coming off an Orange Bowl appearance, a must win. He’s too smart for that. But he acknowledged that his 15th season opener as Iowa’s coach is an important moment.

“To portray this as the Normandy Invasion is not quite that level of importance, but it’s an important game,” Ferentz said Tuesday. “If you’re in college football you’ve got 12 shots. You’d better be ready every time you get a chance to go to the bat.”

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz stopped short of calling the game against the Huskies, coming off an Orange Bowl appearance, a must win. He’s too smart for that. But he acknowledged that his 15th season opener as Iowa’s coach is an important moment. (Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz stopped short of calling the game against the Huskies, coming off an Orange Bowl appearance, a must win. He’s too smart for that. But he acknowledged that his 15th season opener as Iowa’s coach is an important moment. (Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)

That didn’t happen last season. The 4-8 record, the worst since 2000, included two games where the Hawkeyes, in the opinion of their coach, didn’t take the field ready to play. That infuriated him to no end. Coal in the Christmas stocking, not a fancy bowl watch, was their reward.

Related: Kirk Ferentz plans to stick with Jake Rudock
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Iowa has been to a bowl game 10 of the last 12 seasons under Ferentz. All 10 of those bowl teams won their season openers. The 1988 Hawkeyes team was the last to lose its opener and make a bowl game. Hayden Fry’s team opened at Hawaii with a No. 9 national ranking, but returned to the mainland with a 27-24 loss. That team still made it to the Peach Bowl but finished with a 6-4-3 record.

Ferentz picked up his first victory as Iowa’s head coach against Northern Illinois in the third game of the 1999 season, 24-0. Thirteen straight losses followed before a win against Michigan State in the sixth game of the 2000 season.

Iowa’s last victory in 2012 was at Michigan State. The active six-game losing streak is the longest since those 13 games bridging the 1999 and 2000 seasons that started with a win against Northern Illinois.

This skid could end against the Huskies.

“I don’t know if it’s the most important opener, because you want to win every opener,” senior defensive end Dominic Alvis said. “But it’s an important season to set the tone coming off last year.”

Ferentz has had some great teams at Iowa, and all followed the same blueprint. Win early, get young players experience and improve from week to week. Some of those teams were called overachievers, because preseason expectations were not there with the first kickoff of the season.

Expectations are missing this season, too. Ferentz seems to be at his best when the spotlight is shining elsewhere. A win against Northern Illinois, a team that has won 22 of their last 23 regular-season games, could send the Hawkeyes toward another Ferentz-like season.

The players have talked at length about their hunger to win again and the void last season’s bowl-free finish left in their holidays. The coaching staff has been retooled over the past two seasons, bringing new ideas and new energy to the program.

All that is good. But winning is the true tonic that heals all.

And winning Saturday’s opener is very important for a program that wants to avoid spending the holidays at home.

Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year and covers Hawkeye football and basketball for the Register. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football

About Rick Brown: Rick Brown covers men's basketball for The Des Moines Register and Hawk Central. He's married and the father of two. He also covers golf for the Register. View author profile.

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