IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP)—Jeremiha Hunter wanted to pick up the ball, because he thought it was all that separated No. 22 Iowa from an improbable win. His teammates screamed at him to leave Northern Iowa kicker Billy Hallgren’s blocked field goal alone, and that’s what he did.
The Panthers scooped up the ball and, after a long chat by the officials, got a second chance to stun the Hawkeyes.
This time, Hunter was ready.
He made up for his earlier mistake by blocking Hallgren’s second field goal try in the closing seconds, allowing Iowa to escape with a 17-16 victory Saturday.
“I was praying the whole time, like ‘This is why I’m out here,”’ Hunter said. “I was just focused on getting that block the second time.”
The Panthers lined up for the potential winning field goal with 7 seconds left, but Broderick Binns blocked Hallgren’s 40-yard attempt on first down. Believing the game was over, Hunter and several Hawkeyes allowed UNI to recover the ball with a second left.
After officials reviewed the play to make sure there was time on the clock, the Panthers tried again on second down, and Hunter got his hand on the attempt to preserve the win.
Instead of burying his head in his hands after what appeared to be a gut-wrenching mistake, Hunter helped his teammates focus on the next field goal try.
He noticed that Hallgren was kicking line drives—including a screaming 39-yarder in the first quarter—so Hunter told the Hawkeyes to be ready for another low one.
“I just told everybody ‘Squeeze that middle, press that middle and get your hands up,”’ Hunter said. “He was kicking them low all game.”
The Panthers, one of the top programs in the Football Championship Subdivision, returned 14 starters from a team that reached the national semifinals last season. The experience showed as Northern Iowa put the ultimate scare into its in-state rival.
“We talked about Appalachian State during the week. I’m not sure everybody hears that all the time,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz about Michigan’s famous home loss to the Mountaineers in 2007. “It’s going to be a learning experience for us in a lot of different ways.”
Ricky Stanzi had 242 yards passing for the Hawkeyes, who trailed 13-10 before Stanzi found tight end Tony Moeaki for a 6-yard touchdown with 13:18 left in the game.
Hallgren’s 39-yard field goal with 4:26 left brought Northern Iowa within 17-16.
Pat Grace, who threw for 270 yards, then methodically marched the Panthers all the way from their own 8 yard line with 2:14 left—going 6 for 7 passing on the final drive—to set up Hallgren’s potential game-winners.
The Hawkeyes gained just 104 yards of total offense in the first two quarters. The running back tandem of Paki O’Meara and Adam Robinson rushed for 79 yards on 24 carries in Iowa’s first game minus Doak Walker Award winner Shonn Greene—hardly encouraging for the Hawkeyes.
Northern Iowa outgained Iowa 354-329 and went 7 for 17 on third down.
With Iowa’s offense stuck in the mud, the Panthers drove 91 yards on 15 plays to take a 10-3 lead and quiet a sold-out crowd—save for patches of purple-clad Northern Iowa supporters who made the 70-mile drive from Cedar Falls.
“We’ve built this program to a level so we can come to places like this and play head-to-head,” Northern Iowa coach Mark Farley said. “We should have won this thing hands down.”
Iowa caught a major break by recovering a fumble on the opening kickoff of the second half, but fumbled it right back to Northern Iowa two plays later. A 34-yard field goal by Hallgren gave Northern Iowa a 13-3 lead early in the third quarter.
Iowa’s offense got on track in surprisingly quick fashion. The Hawkeyes went 70 yards in just six plays, and Robinson’s first career touchdown, an 11-yarder, pulled them with 13-10 with 9:41 left in the third quarter.
The Hawkeyes took the lead on Stanzi’s TD pass to Moeaki in the corner of the end zone.
Iowa blew a pair of scoring chances in the third quarter and went into the fourth quarter down by three. Daniel Murray missed a 48-yard field goal, and a 44-yard touchdown pass to Paul Chaney Jr. was called back because of a holding penalty.
Those missed opportunities almost came back to haunt to Hawkeyes.
“It was a wakeup call,” cornerback Amari Spievey said, “and we know we have to step it up.”