EVANSTON, Ill. - If you didn’t feel good for Jake Christensen after Saturday‘s game, you might get your Hawkeye fan card revoked. It would be tough to say where he’s faced the bigger hits, on or off of the field.
Criticism comes with the quarterback position, and Christensen has absorbed it as much as any Iowa quarterback this decade. Yet, he’s strapped it up each week and continued to push forward.
It looked like Saturday would be another day of piling on the sophomore, and early on in the Hawkeyes’ 28-17 victory against Northwestern, fans teed off on him. He was torn apart on the message boards and booed at Ryan Field.
It’s unfortunate that people would travel to watch their team on the road and rain down their disapproval from the stands, but it’s almost like a right of passage as an Iowa signal caller. And your action of recourse as the recipient is to turn the jeers into cheers.
Christensen rallied in the second half after completing just 9 of 17 passes for 96 yards in opening 30 minutes. The sophomore from Illinois finished 21 of 36 for 299 and a score.
“I’ve had some pretty bad first halves this year, and this was one of them,” Christensen said. “I heard boos. It’s tough not to hear coming off of the field. It hurts. It’s something that motivated you a little but you don’t expect that from your fans.”
Northwestern clearly was determined to take away the Hawkeyes dynamic running back duo of Albert Young and Damian Sims. Those guys rolled for 214 yards last week against Michigan State, while Christensen completed just 5 of 15 throws for 53 yards.
It looked like the Wildcats’ approach was going to work for much of the first half on Saturday. They jumped out to a 14-0 lead as Iowa went three and out on its first three drives and punter Ryan Donahue was getting a workout.
But late in the half, Christensen began moving the team. The Hawkeyes marched down the field in a 2-minute offense. Christensen completed 5 of 6 passes on the drive, topping it off with a 20-scoring strike to Trey Stross to cut the deficit to 14-7.
“We got in a little bit of a rhythm,” Christensen said. “The no-huddle at the end of the first half was where it started. It’s like a confidence thing with us. It’s like we don’t actually believe we can drive and score until we do it. Then we’re fine. The quicker we start, the better we’re going to be.”
After a fiery halftime speech from coach Kirk Ferentz, Iowa carried the momentum from its first touchdown by tying the game at 14-14 on its first possession of the second half. Christensen completed 4 of 5 passes on the drive that was capped off by a 16-yard scoring run by Young.
Both defenses tightened up from there. Northwestern took a 17-14 lead into the fourth quarter.
Iowa found it’s offensive rhythm again with a drive that started five minutes into the final period. It went 85 yards in eight plays with Christensen completing 5 of 6 passes 69 yards. The big play was a 53-yard bomb to Stross.
The Hawkeyes completed the scoring with a touchdown after a Charles Godfrey interception set them up in Northwestern territory. Christensen completed a key 30-yard pass to Darrell Johnson-Koulianos.
“We threw a couple of hitches,” Christensen said about the deep ball opening up. “We saw their corners up a little tighter which left them open for the hitch and go. Coach made good calls and we executed.”
Christensen smiled and also looked relived outside the locker room after the game. He’s endured a tough season and a lot of hits. Northwestern sacked him six times on Saturday even though the Wildcats came into the game with only seven on the season.
The booing picked up after Christensen missed a seemingly easy short pass to fullback Tom Busch. Christensen called it probably the easiest throw he’s missed in his entire life.
“I just made my mind up from there that I just had to start playing better,” Christensen said. “If I would have been in the stands and saw that pass to Busch, I would have booed me, too.”
You could tell that Christensen’s feelings were hurt. The guy has been one of the most sacked quarterbacks in the nation this season and he’d probably like to see some of his toughness and effort being acknowledged. But fans are fickle.
“It’s been up and down, I mean, it’s been all over the place,” Christensen said of his season. “But I think now in November we’re starting to play more consistent.”
Said Stross: “It’s going to take more than (boos) to rattle Jake. Jake stuck in there and showed what he could do in the second half.”
Christensen has been disappointed in his play this season. He knows he missed his share of throws, ones he’s made all his life.
“You have to have a short memory,” Christensen said. “This is my first year and I’ve expected to make mistakes. I never expected to be perfect. When you miss a really easy throw, though, it’s hard not to let it affect you. I’ve just tried to stay positive. I know I can make the throws. Sometimes I get too excited.”
That’s certainly understandable. He is running for his life a lot of times with an inexperienced line and a green group of receivers. When opportunities are limited, you press to make every one count.
Through everything this season, Christensen has felt the support of his teammates.
“Everybody makes mistakes,” he said. “We don’t get down on each other. We know we’ll come back and make plays. That’s what Iowa is built on.”
Several bowl reps sung the praises of the Iowa fan base after the game based on how it follows its team. Its proven that through the years.
It’s a shame that a few bad apples feel the need to boo. And you know who you are.
Turns out you motivated Christensen on Saturday, but don’t waste any time patting yourself patting yourselves on the back. He would have done it without you because he’s growing from adversity and tough as nails. He took a big step forward on Saturday.