PITTSBURGH – Iowa's football team came into Saturday's game against Pittsburgh with no momentum.
Two underachieving victories, and an underachieving loss, will do that. And after the Panthers' offense shredded Iowa's defense and played keep-away with the offense the first half, the Hawkeyes' 17-7 deficit felt nearly insurmountable.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said the first half reminded him of his first few years as coach, when the Hawkeyes went 1-10 in 1999 and 3-9 in 2000. He used words like "hammered" and "battering" to describe it.
In truth, that hammering and battering put the game, and the rest of the season, hanging on for dear life. Get crushed, and Iowa would have limped into Saturday's Big Ten opener at Purdue with a 2-2 record and a precarious future.
Instead, Ferentz used words like "resilience" to describe his team's second-wind 24-20 victory. This team still has a long ways to go – the offense is 11th in the Big Ten in both rushing (131.5 yards a game) and total offense (360.5) and is next-to-last in scoring (22.2) - but that second half has given the Hawkeyes some momentum for the first time all season.
Iowa didn't improve from Week 1 to Week 2. Or from Week 2 to Week 3. But it did improve from the first half to the second half Saturday.The running game showed a pulse, and Iowa threw the ball vertically more than it has in any game this season. Seven different receivers had catches of 10 yards or more.
Backup quarterback C.J. Beathard came off the bench in relief of injured starter Jake Rudock and engineered his team to victory. Rudock has what has been labeled a hip strain. Ferentz said after the game that he doesn't think it's serious.
Who starts at Purdue? The first clue comes Monday, when the depth chart is released. Ferentz suggested after the game that he'd be comfortable with either one.
"Usually if you have two, you don't have any," Ferentz said. "This is a situation where I think we have two."
It was Beathard's spark and defensive depth that flip-flopped momentum in this game. Iowa's defense rotated the front four of Drew Ott, Nate Meier, Louis Trinca-Pasat and Carl Davis, giving guys such as Mike Hardy, Jaleel Johnson and Faith Ekakitie extended minutes to keep fresh bodies in play.
"To keep the same four guys out there and try to hold up against that group might have been tough," Ferentz said.
The linebacker and secondary positions also substituted frequently, a concerted effort by defensive coordinator Phil Parker to keep his lineup fresh.
Pittsburgh's James Conner rushed for 155 yards in 29 carries. But he did most of his damage early. Conner had eight carries for 66 yards in the first quarter; nine carries for 34 yards in the second quarter; seven carries for 41 yards in the third quarter; and five carries for 14 yards in the fourth quarter.
Eleven different Hawkeyes – Ott, Meier, Trinca-Pasat, John Lowdermilk, Jordan Lomax, Desmond King, Travis Perry, Maurice Fleming, Hardy, Quinton Alston and Reggie Spearman – had at least one solo tackle of Conner. Five more - Bo Bower, Josey Jewell, Greg Mabin, Ekakitie and Carl Davis – had an assist.
Ferentz said that if his team learned something from the Pittsburgh experience, and the resolve and resiliency it took to reverse fortunes, that could pay off with bigger things down the road.
"We have a long road in front of us," Ferentz said.
But the road that isn't quite a bumpy as it was a week ago. On Saturday, we'll see if an improved psyche results in another win at Purdue.
Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.
The Hawkeyes rallied in the second half for a 24-20 win.