Wide receiver Damond Powell of the Hawkeyes flexes as he celebrates a touchdown during the fourth quarter. (Matthew Holst / Getty Images)
Iowa City, Iowa — Iowa won’t have to face Northern Iowa again for four years.
The Hawkeyes won’t be sorry to see the Panthers go.
Jake Rudock threw for 250 yards and two touchdowns and Iowa hung on to beat Northern Iowa 31-23 on Saturday.
Kevonte Martin-Manley added eight catches for the Hawkeyes (1-0), who survived despite allowing 203 yards receiving to running back David Johnson.
Sawyer Kollmorgen had 380 yards passing for the Panthers (0-1). They fell to 1-16 against the rival Hawkeyes but still managed to challenge Iowa into the fourth quarter for the third time since 2009.
“We learned a lot about ourselves. The effort was certainly there. The ‘want to’ was there. But it’s hard to simulate a game, and that was a real good one for us to go through,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.
The Hawkeyes haven’t forgotten how Northern Iowa came within a field goal of winning at Kinnick Stadium five years ago. The Panthers also threw a scare at Iowa in 2012 before losing 27-16.
This time, Iowa was only up 24-23 until Damond Powell’s 12-yard touchdown reception with 6:50 left. Greg Mabin’s late interception sealed the win for the Hawkeyes.
The Panthers might have made it even closer, but they finished with a staggering 16 penalties for 128 yards.
“In a game like this we made good plays offensively and good plays defensively, but penalties set us back,” Northern Iowa coach Mark Farley said.
Iowa opened the second half with a slim 17-13 lead and in need of a boost on offense.
Tevaun Smith provided it on a pair of spectacular plays — then watched Johnson top him.
Smith took a reverse to the left sideline and cut back across the field, avoiding a slew of charging Panthers for a 35-yard gain. He then caught a Rudock pass in the back of the end zone with one hand to put Iowa ahead 24-13.
The explosive Johnson answered quickly.
He beat Iowa’s linebackers for his third huge catch of the day, a 70-yarder that made it 24-20 midway through the third quarter.
Johnson, who torched Iowa State for four TDs in last year’s opener, also had catch and runs of 60 and 53 yards in the middle of the field.
“Our coaches did a great job dissecting film and figuring out the best opportunity for our passing game, especially getting one-on-one match ups with their linebackers,” Kollmorgen said.
Northern Iowa nearly took the lead early in the fourth quarter, but a pair of delay of game penalties forced a 38-yard field goal by Michael Schmadeke.
Promising freshman Derrick Willies bailed the Hawkeyes out with a 46-yard reception, the first of his career. Powell then took a screen pass and cut through the middle of the field for the eventual winning touchdown.
The Hawkeyes looked great the first time they touched the ball.
The rest of the first half was a bit of a struggle.
Mark Weisman returned the opening kickoff 50 yards and LeShun Daniels Jr. made it 7-0 on a 13-yard TD run. But the Panthers defense settled in, and Kollmorgen found Kevin Vereen for a 23-yard TD reception and a 10-7 lead.
Iowa responded with a rambling 17-play, 79-yard scoring drive, which was aided by a Northern Iowa holding penalty at the goal line and capped by Weisman’s 1-yard touchdown run that made it 14-10.
Iowa’s backfield rotation finished with 151 yards rushing, and the Hawkeyes held Johnson to just 34 yards rushing. But fixing the mistakes they made with Johnson in pass coverage will be a major point of emphasis for Iowa.
“It wasn’t like we didn’t know it was coming. But it’s a matter of doing something,” Ferentz said of Johnson. “We’ve got to play those better because we’ll see those again.”