AMES, Iowa – It’s not been a clean couple of games for Iowa. Last week, there were turnovers. Saturday against Iowa State, the Hawkeyes suffered from penalties and missed tackles, among other things.
When it’s mattered, however, they’ve found a way to overcome – a 24-3 win against Wyoming to open the season and a thrilling, 44-41, overtime victory here against the rival Cyclones. What they’ve lacked in execution, they more than made up for in resiliency and perseverance.
Sometimes that’s a crucial piece at this time of year for a developmental program. Most often, growing pains will be experienced. If you weather the storm, sunny skies could be ahead.
Iowa needed to block a couple of kicks to slip by Northern Iowa early in 2009. That team won its first nine games and then the Orange Bowl. C.J. Beathard’s late-game heroics pulled out wins against Iowa State and Pittsburgh in the non-conference on the way to a 12-0 regular season two years ago.
That’s not to say the Hawkeyes are headed to the heights of those teams. There’s plenty of ground to cover before they get there. However, they’re showing the intestinal fortitude to make it happen.
“There are a lot of things we need to improve on. I think that’s pretty evident,” coach Kirk Ferentz said. “The thing about it is our guys are playing hard, they’re playing together and they fight to the end.”
Cliches, yes. But some of them are true. And history tells us the best Iowa teams display those characteristics.
You might tire of hearing it, but these players don’t come to town readymade. It’s not a roster flush with five-star recruits. They’re built up individually and blended into a team. That’s the path.
Last week, the offense shot itself in the foot with four turnovers. The defense stepped up and shut down future NFL quarterback Josh Allen.
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Saturday, the Cyclone offense carved up Iowa. The Hawkeyes rallied behind sophomore quarterback Nate Stanley. In his first start away from home, the Wisconsin native became only the second Big Ten signal caller in the last 20 years with 300-plus pass yards (333) and five touchdowns without an interception in a road game.
He didn’t do it alone. Running back Akrum Wadley took a short pass 46 yards for a game-tying touchdown with a minute left. The senior from New Jersey slipped tackles and ran through others en route to 190 total yards of offense and a pair of scores.
True freshman receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette, who hails from Wadley’s alma mater, Newark (NJ) Weequahic High, caught two touchdown passes, including the game winner in overtime. The offense line, which has struggled in pass protection the last few years, held up well despite injuries.
While the defense played much of the second half on its heals, it delivered in the clutch. Defensive end Parker Hesse picked off pass that turned into a crucial fourth-quarter field goal. Cornerback Michael Ojemudia finally stopped the fade route to Allen Lazard on third down in overtime.
“We don’t want to put ourselves in situations like that but the silver lining was that when we were in those situations we had resolve, we had some grit and were able to fight our way back out of it. Having that quality as a team is something that is going to be beneficial and help us win ballgames in the future,” Hesse said.
A game that looked to be close on paper delivered just that. The Hawkeyes led 21-10 early in the third quarter only to watch ISU respond with 21 unanswered points, taking a 10-point lead at the start of the final period.
Iowa scored the game’s next 10 points to tie it up at 31-31. The Cyclones then connected on a 74-yard touchdown pass two plays later courtesy of a busted coverage. With 4:34 left in regulation, the Hawkeyes dug deep.
They began the drive on their own 11 following a ISU drive that forced the visitors to burn their timeouts. As it had all day, Iowa answered the call for a long drive. After touchdown marches of 76, 91, 94, and 92 yards, it traveled 89 yards in seven plays, taking under two minutes off the clock before Wadley ran around and through the defense for the 46-yard scoring grab.
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The Hawkeyes had seized momentum heading into overtime. They had ISU right where they wanted it.
“We look forward to games like this,” Wadley said. “Coach always talks about tough games. You finish strong and that’s exactly what we did.”
Another good sign was that Iowa showed it can win by whatever means necessary.
“We all stick together. Last week, the defense bailed us out. This week, the offense bailed the defense out. We’re all coming together. We have some good leaders and we have some young guys we’re bringing forward,” Wadley said.
Saturday was the type of win that can galvanize a team. Confidence was built.
“You talk about camaraderie and unity, that sort of cohesion is what makes a good football team,” Hesse said. “It feels good to be able to meld together and say it took all of us here. It was all of us against 60,000 and we were able to get it done.”