CHICAGO - Season openers are a lot like first dates. There's a feeling out process and often it's hard to tell where things are headed next.
That's what Iowa players and fans experienced during Saturday's 18-17 win here against Northern Illinois at Soldier Field. The were awkward and nervous moments for everyone associated with the Hawkeyes.
Fortunately for the team and its faithful followers, late-game heroics saved the day from being a disaster. They could leave the Windy City with the hope that things might improve. That would have been tough to do in a loss.
"I'm really proud of our effort and the way the guys really hung in there," Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. "There were things that were disappointing at times. Those are things that are correctible with time, hopefully."
This isn't Ferentz's first rodeo. He's had teams look strong early in the season only to fade down the stretch. The opposite also has occured.
What Iowa does with the information it gathered here on Saturday will determine its fate. Few people saw the 2009 team going to the Orange Bowl after a one-point win against Northern Iowa to start that season. The next year, the Hawkeyes positioned themselves to win a conference title by demolishing Michigan State in late October only to stumble through the next month, finishing up with a loss at lowly Minnesota.
The most encouraging thing coming out of Saturday's game was the effort about which Ferentz spoke. While that used to be a given in the first half of the coach's tenure leading the program, it's come and gone in recent years more often than anyone would like to admit.
The Hawkeyes found guys to make plays when it counted on Saturday. Fifth-year senior John Wienke, a quarterback for most of his college career, punted the ball inside of NIU's 5-yard line in the fourth quarter. Classmate Greg Castillo downed it there and also played well at cornerback replacing an injured B.J. Lowery.
Then, there was Damon Bullock. The true sophomore from Dallas rushed 10 times for 20 yards last season. Saturday, he carried the ball 30 times for 150 and the game winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter's closing minutes.
The left side of Iowa's line, tackle Brandon Scherff and guard Matt Tobin, struggled though some of Saturday's action. When it counted, they, along with tight end Zach Derby, blocked up Bullock's game-winning jaunt from 23 yards out. The runner cruised into the end zone untouched.
"It was a play we talked about at halftime based on something we saw in the second quarter," Ferentz said. "(Offensive Coordinator) Greg (Davis) pulled that out of his pocket at an opportune time, obviously."
Davis' recognition that the play could work later in the game based on an earlier tell from NIU also is a positive sign. It's that type of experience Ferentz sought when he hired Davis to replace the departed Ken O'Keefe after last season.
There are concerns. The Hawkeyes must improve on pass protection and senior quarterback James Vandenberg can be better running the offense. Rival Iowa State comes to Kinnick Stadium next week. The Cyclones will be blitzing when they get off of the bus.
Defensively, tackling, or lack thereof, was an issue last year. Some of the players that whiffed too many times in 2011 were guilty again of poor fundamentals on Saturday.
The Iowa coaches also must find a way to counter offensive schemes that spread them out and run past them. They figured it out on Saturday when it counted most after being repeatedly burned by the tactic. NIU quarterback Jordan Lynch looked like a bull parting people in Pamplona in racing 73 yards for a touchdown.
Saturday's close win surely will have some Iowa fans wringing their hands with boys from Ames next up on the schedule. That's not all bad.
Few people that saw Iowa State control Tulsa on Saturday will be expecting the Hawkeyes to cruise this coming week. That's OK. Iowa never seems comfortable being a heavy favorite in the last decade plus of the rivalry.
Saturday illustrated once again that there are fewer easy days for big conference teams playing smaller ones than there used to be. A 6.5-point favorite, Penn State lost at home to Ohio. Defending Big Ten champ Wisconsin held off visiting Northern Iowa of the FCS, 26-21, in Madison.
Again, the outcomes of college football's first week don't determine the fate for the winners or the losers. It's only a start.
The saying goes that a team makes its biggest improvements from Week 1 to Week 2. The Hawkeyes need to live that. And as we've witnessed in the past, it can happen.