When North Dakota State kicker Cam Pedersen hit a game-winning field goal as time expired on Saturday afternoon in Iowa City, it continued a streak of 6 straight victories against Power-5 FBS teams. Furthermore, it crushed any chance Iowa had of rejoining the College Football Playoff conversation, a year after they fell one drive against MSU short of that result.
Don’t be surprised if the internal Big Ten Conference memo looks like this:
Rule number 1 from Jim Delany: don’t schedule FCS schools anymore. We’re better than that, and we need to increase the strength of schedule across the board for the playoff committee.
Rule number 2 from Jim Delany: really REALLY don’t schedule North Dakota State anymore. The Bison are good enough to beat half our teams or more on a good day, and it’s not a good look, no matter how many consecutive FCS national championships that program wins (currently at 5).
All joking aside, this is one of many good reasons to rid this conference of games like this, where there is little upside and all the downside in the world. That being said, all credit to the Bison, who would definitely fit in with a jump to the FBS, assuming there’s a good fit for them in the future. Who wouldn’t want November trips to Fargo, after all?
What did we learn from this upset of a top-15 team, and perhaps the biggest FCS upset since Appalachian State-Michigan a decade ago? Let’s take a look.
1. Iowa is highly vulnerable to strong interior running games
Count me among one of many who thought NDSU replaced enough players from last season that the depth would be a concern against a seeming top-tier FBS program like Iowa. Particularly against a strong running attack and a Kirk Ferentz offensive line, it seemed like Iowa would be able to wear down the Bison and then leverage that to long drives and scores in the second half.
Well, all of that was correct, except the teams. It was the Hawkeye defensive line, particularly the interior linemen, who failed to clog up rushing lanes throughout the game. Thanks to a lack of time of possession for the Hawkeyes, the Iowa defense was largely gassed in the fourth quarter when it needed a stop against the NDSU rushing attack.
The end result: 239 rushing yards for the Bison on 49 attempts, and nearly 37 minutes of time of possession. Both King Frazier (99 yards) and Lance Dunn (61 yards) found plenty of open space to keep drives alive in the second half. That is not a formula for winning, unless you are scoring quickly and often, and that was not the case for Iowa in this game.
With many teams in the Big Ten built to work the same type of offense, this is highly troubling for a team many pegged to win the West Division. The defensive line depth and interior play has to get better, and in a hurry, if the Hawkeyes are going to avoid more losses by teams following the game plan of the Bison.
2. Easton Stick is no Carson Wentz, but he doesn’t have to be
In probably the biggest game of the season for the Bison, at least before the post-season, new quarterback Easton Stick had a reasonable performance. His modest numbers passing were 11/19 passing for 124 yards with 1 touchdown and 1 interception, along with 35 yards rushing on 11 attempts.
Those are not earth-shattering numbers, nor are they anything like what now-NFL quarterback Carson Wentz was doing last year. However, on a day where the defense jammed up the Iowa running game and NDSU dominated the line of scrimmage on offense, those numbers and lack of mistakes were good enough to win.
Stick is capable as a game manager of leading a team like this to another FCS national championship. That’s little comfort for Iowa and Big Ten fans looking to the “big boy” playoffs, but it is good news for that little phenomenon team in Fargo, North Dakota.
This performance and solid quarterback play also means NDSU will remain at or near the top of the FCS division for the foreseeable future. It will be interesting to see where Stick goes from this performance, considering the big shoes he is filling.
3. Greg Davis will be under a lot of heat moving forward
Before the 12-0 season, offensive play calling was a sore spot for many in the Iowa fan base. On many weekends, the game plan did not seem to make sense, and adjustments were not made to correct for opposing game plans. Those issues cropped up again against the Bison.
On Saturday, the Hawkeyes ran the ball 10 times on 29 offensive plays in the first half. That turned out to not be enough, as NDSU held the clock for long stretches of time and wore down the Iowa defensive front by the 4th quarter. Granted, NDSU was playing aggressive and cheating more men towards the line of scrimmage on a few plays, but the passes attempted by C.J. Beathard and company were not executed well to take advantage of this defensive scheme.
At some point, such as halftime, the decision should have been made to give a break to the defense and make adjustments to be more effective and possession-oriented on offense. However, Iowa fared much worse in the second half, outside one long touchdown drive that took only 3 plays and less than 2 minutes off the clock in the 3rd quarter.
The Hawkeyes ended with a sickly 34 yards rushing and less than 250 yards offense, total.
Put simply, NDSU looked like the deeper and better team late in the game. Regardless of whether that’s true (it is not), the fact that it looks that way is an indictment of the scheme and play calling.
In other words, it’s a good thing Kirk Ferentz worked out a new contract extension deal and has his assistant coaches protected for a couple years, because otherwise you’d have to think Greg Davis would be the first out the door after 2016 (assuming things do not get better). He still might be invited to take his talents elsewhere, if he can’t get this team which is better than the 2015 team on paper to similar results.
4. Iowa has been eliminated from competing for this championship trophy, but all other goals are still achievable
A bonus what we learned – even with one loss, Iowa has been eliminated from the College Football Playoff.
Sure, we counsel our readers and listeners often to take it easy on over-reacting to September results and first losses, but not this time. It does not matter that NDSU is a five-time defending national championship, as the playoff committee will not be able to get over a home FCS loss.
Bottom line: the committee doesn’t like FCS games enough to punish teams noticeably for scheduling them, let alone losing them. So, sorry Hawkeye fans, you are officially eliminated from the playoffs by the Bison.
That being said, this loss does not mean anything more than that for the Iowa program. The Big Ten championship goal is still totally in this team’s hands, as well as the ability to return for a better Rose Bowl performance or another major bowl game. As long as this team does not let this shocking loss hang over and cause another upset, such as at Rutgers next week, Iowa does not lose anything other than having to be the butt of a few jokes.
Don’t worry, Michigan survived this type of loss, and Iowa, you will too. As long as the problems discussed above get corrected in the next couple weeks, anyway.