NCF Nation: Mathew Sims

Iowa learned a painful lesson Saturday: it's how you start and how you finish.

After a sluggish start, the Hawkeyes did a lot of good things in the second and third quarters, and the early part of the fourth, in Saturday's season opener against Northern Illinois. Quarterback Jake Rudock made some big throws in his collegiate debut, and a defense led by three senior linebackers held Huskies star Jordan Lynch in check.

But mental and physical breakdowns on both sides of the ball doomed Iowa down the stretch, as Northern Illinois rallied for a 30-27 win at steamy Kinnick Stadium. Mathew Sims' 36-yard field goal with four seconds left sealed it for NIU as Rod Carey recorded his first career coaching win.

This one will sting for a while for Iowa, which really needed something to go its way following a long and mostly gloomy offseason.

The Hawkeyes stumbled out of the gate but survived by scoring 17 unanswered points to take control midway through the game. Linebacker Christian Kirksey turned the momentum with a forced fumble, scoop and 48-yard touchdown return late in the first quarter. Rudock completed 13 of 21 attempts for 188 yards and a touchdown in the first half, and Iowa's defense began bottling up Lynch (56 rush yards on 22 carries) and his Wildcat-like, inside zone rushing attack.

But Iowa suffered a breakdown midway through the fourth, as a blown coverage allowed Lynch to find Da'Ron Brown wide open for a 33-yard score with 5:05 remaining. Lynch ended up hurting Iowa much more with his arm (275 pass yards, 3 TDs) than his legs.

Even then, the Hawkeyes appeared to be in good position to win as Rudock led the offense inside NIU territory. Then, on third-and-9 from the 44-yard line, offensive coordinator Greg Davis made one of those calls that drive Iowa fans batty: a bubble screen. It predictably went for a yard.

After a season where Iowa consistently called third-down passes with no chance of reaching the marker, Davis should know better. He should rip the bubble screen out of his playbook. The swing pass, too. They don't work.

Iowa still had a decent chance after the defense forced a three-and-out, but Rudock finally showed his inexperience, telegraphing a throw that NIU's Jimmie Hall easily picked off. Three plays later, Sims split the uprights to give the Huskies the win.

There were some positives in this game for Kirk Ferentz's crew, but it's all about the bottom line. Iowa found a way to lose.

Last year's Iowa win against Northern Illinois proved to mean nothing for the Hawkeyes. I have a feeling today's loss will be much more significant for the Hawkeyes going forward.
Here are three keys for Northern Illinois against Florida State in Tuesday night's Discover Orange Bowl.

1. Speed racers: Florida State is one of the fastest teams in the country and certainly the fastest team Northern Illinois has faced so far. It will take some time for NIU to adjust to the Seminoles' speed, especially on the defensive side. The Huskies have to limit big plays from FSU early in the game. NIU has enough speed of its own to keep pace, especially at wide receiver, and the Huskies' offensive tempo will play a huge role in the game. The Huskies want to operate extremely fast on offense, and once they start moving the chains, they're tough to stop. Three-and-outs must be avoided, and NIU defenders must keep Florida State's weapons like wide receiver Rashad Greene.

2. Win the second half: Both teams perform well in the second half, and NIU's coaching staff is confident in their ability to make adjustments and the players' conditioning. Both areas will be tested against a Florida State team that has outscored opponents 296-80 in the first half this season. Don't be surprised if the Seminoles jump out early. NIU has to be able to take a few punches, hang in until halftime and then do what it does best in the final 30 minutes. Other than a season-opening loss to Iowa, the Huskies have closed games extremely well, outscoring the opposition 258-117 in the final two quarters of play. Kent State and Iowa are the only teams to outscore NIU in the second half this season.

3. Special attention: NIU and Florida State both have bright spots in the kicking game, especially the Seminoles, who boast one of the nation's best kickers in Dustin Hopkins. The Huskies rank in the top five nationally in both kickoff coverage and punt coverage, and they have solid returners in Tommylee Lewis and A.J. Sebastiano. Kicker Mathew Sims earned All-MAC honors in 2011 and kept NIU alive in overtime against Kent State in the MAC championship game Nov. 30. If NIU wants to pull off the upset, it must gain an edge in the kicking game and make impact plays.

Video: NIU wins MAC title on late kick

December, 2, 2011

Mathew Sims kicked a 33-yard field goal on the final play as Northern Illinois came back from 20 points down to beat Ohio for the MAC championship, 23-20.