By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Even without having a victory in the series since the William McKinley administration, Northern Iowa has earned the right to play Iowa in football.
Not every year, but occasionally, like this Saturday when the Panthers will try to end a game 16-game losing streak against Iowa.
Northern Iowa is a 20-point underdog, and deservedly so.
Iowa should win this game under any circumstance due mostly to Northern Iowa competing at the FCS level, and Iowa pretty much has with exception to the first game in 1898 when Northern Iowa prevailed 11-5 in Cedar Falls.
Iowa hasn’t been back to Cedar Falls since and has dominated the rivalry, holding Northern Iowa to five or fewer points in 10 of the 17 games, including six shutouts.
Iowa won five consecutive games in the series from 1899 to 1903 by a combined margin of 162-5 and also crushed the Panthers 95-0 in 1914.
The series then took an 81-year hiatus, which was probably needed, before resuming in 1995 with a 34-13 Iowa victory at Kinnick Stadium.
Tavian Banks and his cohorts then whipped Northern Iowa 66-0 in 1997 and that was followed by a 45-21 Hawkeye victory in 2008 in which the outcome never seemed in doubt.
The series had become a joke and it seemed pointless for it to continue because Northern Iowa was nothing more than a sacrificial lamb getting its one big moment on a grand stage.
But then everything changed on Sept. 5, 2009 when Iowa had to block not one, but two field-goal attempts in the final seconds to escape with a 17-16 victory before a stunned and concerned crowd at Kinnick Stadium.
The teams have since played two more games with Iowa winning by scores of 27-16 in 2012 and 31-23 in 2014.
“I think all you've got to do for us is look at the last three series we've had Northern Iowa, whether it be in '14, whether it be in '12,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. “Both of those, 11-point and 8-point wins, but more specifically the 2009 ballgame where we had a really good football team and were losing 13-3 in the third quarter, and basically it was a miracle finish for us to win the football game.
“That's what we expect when we play them on Saturday. They're going to come in here looking to win the football game, playing tough like they always do, and really it's up to us to make sure we're ready to go, make sure we're improving and ready to kick off.”
Iowa’s close call against the Panthers in 2009 didn’t go over well with fans at first. But they learned to accept it when the Hawkeyes started 9-0 on their way to an 11-2 season that was capped by a victory over Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl.
The near-miracle in 2009, or near-disaster from Iowa’s perspective, showed that the Northern Iowa game wasn’t a foregone conclusion anymore. And the two games played since then have only strengthened that perception.
Northern Iowa has earned the right to play Iowa every now and then just from being competitive in the last three games.
"I think playing (Northern Iowa) is something we all should embrace," Ferentz said. "I think that's our plan, at least to continue that."
It makes more sense to have Northern Iowa fill the schedule occasionally rather than filling it all the time with teams from the Mid-American Conference.
If the past three games against Northern Iowa had been mismatches, that wouldn’t be the case.
But they weren’t mismatches.
Iowa basically needed a miracle to win in 2009 and also had to withstand David Johnson’s performance in 2014 when he had 203 receiving yards and one touchdown on just five catches.
The Panthers outgained Iowa, 405-401, in the 2014 game and only trailed 24-23 early in the fourth quarter.
Saturday’s game at Kinnick Stadium, which starts sat 6:30 p.m. and will be televised by the Big Ten Network, is considered a trap game for Iowa because it comes a week after the 13-3 victory over Iowa State and a week before the much-anticipated showdown under the stars against Wisconsin at Kinnick Stadium.
The Iowa players dismissed that concern on Tuesday while meeting with the media, saying they had learned their lesson about taking a team lightly from the 23-21 loss to FCS power North Dakota State in 2016.
Iowa really had no excuse for losing to North Dakota State, just like it had no excuse for losing to Western Michigan in 2007, to Central Michigan in 2012 and to Northern Illinois in 2013.
“We saw that in 2016, my freshman year when North Dakota State came in here, I guess some guys might not have been ready, and that’s why we lost the game,” said Iowa junior strong safety Amani Hooker. “So this week we’re going out there and focusing on Iowa football and make sure we have our right responsibilities and keys and just going out and playing our football.”
The players-not-being-ready theory is often used to explain an upset, especially by the players who were on the wrong end of the upset.
But what are they supposed to say under the circumstances?
The best way to avoid an upset is to be focused solely on your next opponent regardless of what lies ahead the following week. And, of course, it helps to play well.
Iowa sometimes has a tendency to play down to its competition under Ferentz, and that could always happen on Saturday.
Before the series recently turned competitive, it seemed beyond Northern Iowa’s capability to beat Iowa just based on the talent factor.
But with three highly competitive games in a row, that perception has changed to where you could at least consider an upset happening.
Iowa facing Northern Iowa isn’t the same as Iowa State facing Drake, which Iowa State Athletic Director Jamie Pollard apparently had interest in arranging as a makeup-game for the season opener against South Dakota State that was cancelled due to lightning.
Drake doesn’t offer scholarships, so thankfully, the NCAA has a rule to prevent a ridiculous mismatch like that from occurring.
Northern Iowa versus Iowa hardly is a classic, but it’s also far being ridiculous, as the last three games have shown.
The Panthers get up for this game, and understandably so, because their roster is filled with Iowa natives and with players who probably heard from Iowa during the recruiting process, but weren’t offered a scholarship.
“We try to look at everybody, and their roster is very heavily populated from Iowa players,” Ferentz said.
The same is true with Iowa's roster, which has14 Iowa natives in the starting lineup, including kicker Miguel Recinos and punter Colten Rastetter.
The Panthers had better be ready to play, because if not, the Iowa defense could make life miserable for them. And that still could happen, even if Northern Iowa is ready to play because the Iowa defense appears to be that good.
The Iowa offense struggled in the first two games, but the pieces are certainly in place for that to change, especially if Northern Iowa doesn't perform well on defense. The Panthers won't face a better tight end combination than Iowa's one-two punch of junior Noah Fant and sophomore T.J. Hockenson.
Northern Iowa has earned another shot at trying to beat Iowa just from having played well in the last three games in the series, and as an instate school with a rich tradition in football.
An upset probably won’t happen on Saturday, but it felt the same way heading into the North Dakota State game two years ago.
Prediction: Iowa 31, Northern Iowa 10
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