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Young Iowa cornerback D.J. Johnson was tested early by Iowa State. Hear how he was able to overcome a mistake and come up with nine tackles: Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

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AMES, Ia. — There have been 67 Cy-Hawk football games, but never before one that was decided by a single point.

So many things had to go just right for No. 18 Iowa (3-0, 1-0 Big Ten Conference) to hold off Iowa State 18-17 Saturday at Jack Trice Stadium in a day game that turned into an interminable night game.

Let us count the improbable storylines:

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  • A quarterback not known for his mobility who nevertheless made two of the biggest runs of the game, both on third down.
  • A young cornerback thrust into action who made a costly early mistake but came back to lead the Hawkeyes in tackles.
  • A wide receiver who delivered a sliding catch to convert a near-miracle third-and-22.
  • A kicker who was once a hero, then relegated to the sidelines for two years, only to re-emerge and become the star of a big victory once again.
  • A senior who has tried both offense and defense in his Iowa career, finally to find himself as a leader on special teams, who clinched the victory with pure hustle.

“It means a lot, but honestly, it’s just one play,” said that senior, Devonte Young. “I’ve just got to keep moving forward and keep working. That’s not like the end of the season for me.”

But it was certainly the early high point of Iowa’s season. The Hawkeyes have won five consecutive games in this rivalry. And none was stranger than this.

It started with the Hawkeyes driving methodically downfield for a 25-yard Keith Duncan field goal. Duncan, a junior who has been perfect all season, said later that was the most difficult boot of the day since he had never before kicked in this stadium.

The big play in that drive came on third-and-seven from the Iowa State 26-yard line. Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley read the Cyclone defense well enough to know that he could pick up the first down without even throwing the ball. He found a crease to his left and rumbled for 10 yards. It was foreshadowing.

In the fourth quarter, Iowa again had a third down on the Cyclone 26. The Hawkeyes needed 11 yards this time. Stanley trotted around right end for 14. That drive ended with Iowa’s lone touchdown and a 15-14 lead.

Those running plays for Stanley, believe it or not, were part of Iowa’s game plan.

“We knew that they have a tendency to drop a lot of guys out in coverage and that was something that we felt we could take advantage of,” Stanley said.

After Iowa’s opening field goal came the first lightning delay and an unwanted 49-minute cooling-off period.

When play resumed, the Cyclones (1-1) went after Iowa redshirt freshman cornerback D.J. Johnson, who was in the starting lineup because of an injury to Matt Hankins. Iowa State quarterback Brock Purdy hit Tarique Milton for 12 yards in front of Johnson. Johnnie Lang ran at him for 7 more. Purdy lateraled across the field to Deshaunte Jones and Johnson raced up to try to make a tackle. Uh, oh. La’Michael Pettway ran untouched down the Hawkeye sideline and Jones pulled up and hit him in stride for a 51-yard touchdown.

It was a visible mistake for Johnson, who retreated to the bench and got an earful from defensive coordinator Phil Parker.

But Johnson also discovered an inner resolve not to let one error compound itself. By the time the game was over, he had nine tackles and two passes broken up. And a belief in himself.

“I was so excited I almost started crying,” Johnson said after helping Iowa win its first road game of the season. “It hurt me a little bit because I was just trying not to mess up and maybe that’s why I got beat early. But I think adversity just shows who you really are.”

The second quarter brought another weather delay, this one lasting two hours and six minutes. The Cyclones led 7-6 at halftime and easily built that lead to 14-6 on their opening drive of the third quarter.

That’s when Iowa started moving backward, thanks to a 15-yard penalty on Stanley for intentional grounding. Things looked bleak. The Hawkeyes stared at a third-and-22 from their 19-yard line. The last thing they wanted to do was punt the ball right back to a Cyclone team feeding off its soldout crowd and hungry to pile on points.

Stanley dropped back to pass. Ihmir Smith-Marsette breezed past a cornerback and found himself locked on a safety. Stanley delivered a pass low and to the inside of the field, where only Smith-Marsette could catch it. He did. It was a 27-yard gain. Iowa kept moving until Duncan was able to nail a 42-yard field goal to cut the deficit to 14-9.

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Iowa wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette describes his latest clutch play at Jack Trice Stadium. Listen to how he converted a third-and-22: Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

“We needed a spark,” said Smith-Marsette, a junior who scored the game-winning touchdown here two years ago. “I had to make sure that my feet were under me. It was a wet field. I had to break when I needed to and I knew Nate was going to give me a good pass.

“I’m trying to be as clutch as I can in any game.”

He has been.

But so has Duncan. As a true freshman, he was the kicker that delivered Iowa’s last-second victory over Michigan at Kinnick Stadium. The past two years, however, he was the understudy to Miguel Recinos, a humbling experience that Duncan said only made him stronger.

He’s the starter again, and Saturday showed why. Duncan made his initial field goal, then came back out onto the field after the second weather delay to test the footing. He promptly fell on his rear end.

“I knew that I had to shorten my stance a little bit, put more weight on the middle of my plant foot and go from there,” Duncan said.

That made his next three field goals — from 40, 42 and 39 yards — that much more challenging. Duncan was true on all of them. His final one came with 4:51 remaining. It was the game-winner. Duncan is 8-for-8 this season.

He said he got emotional after the victory.

“I just know how much tonight meant, beating Iowa State,” Duncan said. “I’m from North Carolina, but I quickly picked up on that rivalry.”

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The game wasn’t over yet. The Hawkeyes were set to punt to Iowa State with 90 seconds left and holding that tenuous one-point lead. The sequence didn’t start well. Iowa’s initial attempt was whistled dead when Barrington Wade was called for a false start. That backed the Hawkeyes up to their 36-yard line.

Young, who came to Iowa as a wide receiver and switched to safety last year in an attempt to earn more playing time, cautioned everyone to relax.

“Just line up,” he told them. “Just get the punt off.”

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Iowa senior Devonte Young made a heads-up play to seal the win over Iowa State. Hear him talk about it: Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

Michael Sleep-Dalton sent a 42-yard boot angling toward the Hawkeye sideline. Young took off to cover it but saw Iowa State’s Datrone Young signal for a fair catch. Devonte Young didn’t ease up, and was surprised to see another Cyclone run into Datrone Young, causing the football to fall to the ground.

“In the moment, I’m just hustling, just getting to the returner,” Devonte Young said after pouncing on the ball and sealing a bizarre and satisfying victory that was six hours in the making.

“It felt good just to go back to my teammates and celebrate with them.”

Afterward, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, who thought he’d seen it all in his 21 years at the Hawkeye helm, tried to sum up all the drama. He praised Sleep-Dalton and Young for their heads-up play.

“Just a really unusual end and probably fitting just the way this game was going,” Ferentz said.

“It was crazy on all fronts.”

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.

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