IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Kirk Ferentz's record-setting 144th win at Iowa could not have been more emblematic of his tenure in Iowa City.
There were times when every play on offense looked like a struggle — especially early on. But they kept grinding, finally breaking through with a win powered by mental toughness, the running game and a punishing defense.
Nate Stanley threw for 108 yards and a touchdown, Ferentz passed mentor Hayden Fry as Iowa's all-time leader in wins and the Hawkeyes rolled past Northern Illinois 33-7 in a season opener on Saturday.
Fry, who counted Ferentz among his assistants for nearly a decade, went 143-89-6 in 20 seasons before Ferentz took over in 1999.
The often-stoic Ferentz couldn't hold back his emotions as the seconds ticked down, sharing a tearful embrace with his son, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz.
"I've just enjoyed coaching ... there's a lot of luck involved, too. Because everything pretty much in my whole career has happened by chance. I swear to God it has," Ferentz said. "I never had a master plan or a list of things I was trying to accomplish. But the commonality is that I've just been around really good people."
After a very sluggish start, Stanley found Noah Fant for a 1-yard TD reception midway through the third quarter to make it 10-0. Ivory Kelly-Martin's 2-yard run pushed Iowa's lead to 17, and Toren Young's 6-yard TD rush put the Hawkeyes ahead 24-0 early in the fourth quarter.
It was a signature Ferentz win, with the Hawkeyes running for 209 yards while holding the Huskies to just 211 yards overall.
"He's another father figure for us," Stanley said of Ferentz. "He means a lot to everybody."
Marcus Childers threw for 105 yards and a late TD for Northern Illinois, which had won four of its last five against Power Five opponents. The Huskies were without top receiver Spencer Tears (43 catches in 2017), who was suspended for undisclosed reasons.
"They're a really good football team, and in that second half they proved it," Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey said. "I think the difference was that their (defensive) line got after our (offensive) line."
Iowa: The Hawkeyes were missing their starting left and right tackles against one of the better Group of Five programs in America in their opener. The goal was survival, not style points, and in that regard Iowa did what it had to do. But Iowa's defense was so dominant that its offense had time to find its footing. "Sometimes our job is to put the fire out," said defensive end Parker Hesse. "We knew the offense was going to heat up."
Northern Illinois: The Huskies discovered what a lot of others likely will this fall: Iowa's defensive line is not to be trifled with. The Hawkeyes' talented front was relentless in the trenches, disrupting NIU on play after play. The Huskies gained minus-2 yards in the third quarter.
YOUNG'S BIG DAY
Iowa was starving for a big play, especially after an impressive run deep into NIU territory by Ivory Kelly-Martin was called back because of a penalty in the third quarter. But Toren Young, who lost the starting running back job to Kelly-Martin in fall camp, broke off a 40-yarder in his first carry to set up the Hawkeyes' first TD. Young added a 24-yard run — on what looked like the same play — to set up Kelly-Martin's TD. It'll be interesting to see how Iowa approaches the running back spot next week against the Cyclones, because Young (84 yards), Kelly-Martin (62 yards) and Mekhi Sargent (40 yards) all looked like Big Ten backs in the opener. "What really carried our football team is we played hard," Ferentz said.
Stanley's final numbers, 11- of-23 passing with a TD and a pick, didn't look the least bit impressive. But the rising junior's improved footwork was evident in the pocket, and he was victimized by a number of bad drops. Iowa's receiving corps could see a shakeup in practice this week.
Quarterback Peyton Mansell's first career TD, a 1-yard plunge with 6:52 left, made it 33-0. ... Tight end T.J. Hockenson had four catches for 64 yards for Iowa. ... Jordan Nettles had 74 yards rushing on 13 carries for the Huskies. ... The Hawkeyes improved to 17-1 in openers since 2001.
Iowa hosts Iowa State on Sept. 8.
Northern Illinois hosts Utah next Saturday.