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Iowa senior guard Landan Paulsen knows that younger players are always watching his behavior. Hear why he says that's important: Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

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EVANSTON, Ill. — Iowa’s football schedule was neatly divided into three sections this season.

The first three games couldn’t have gone any better, concluding with a long day’s journey into night in Ames that produced an 18-17 victory over Iowa State. That remains the Hawkeyes’ signature win of the season. They were 3-0 heading into their first bye week.

The next five-game stretch was a bumpy ride. It ended Saturday with a fierce defensive effort and a 20-0 victory over Northwestern. No. 19 Iowa enters its second bye week at 6-2, girding for a four-game November slate that will define the season.

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The Hawkeyes followed frustrating losses to Michigan and Penn State with needed wins over rivals Purdue and Northwestern.

What did they learn in the past five games?

“I think we’ve got a pretty resilient team,” Hawkeye star offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs said. “We could have gone two ways: We could have hung our heads and just taken it, almost. We’ve bounced back. We’ve won two in a row. We’re 6-2. That’s the best that we could do (after the two losses).”

Iowa has bounced back, but remains an enigma. Its defense is indisputably elite, third in the nation in points allowed per game, at 10.1. That group has showed up for every game, allowing only 27 points in the two losses.

But the offense faltered visibly at times, giving up sacks, coughing up the football, struggling to establish a run game, failing to finish red-zone drives with touchdowns. Against Northwestern, that unit may have found its path to success this season — be efficient enough to let the defense carry you home. The totals: One sack allowed, no turnovers, one lengthy touchdown drive and 123 yards on the ground.

Iowa is 3-2 in the Big Ten Conference, tied for second in the West with Wisconsin. But the three teams it has defeated — Rutgers, Purdue and Northwestern — are a combined 1-14 in conference games. Michigan and Penn State, both ranked teams, are a combined 8-2.

What we’re about to find out is whether Iowa is a team that can feast on the bottom of the league while not quite being good enough to knock off the front-runners. Or if the Hawkeyes, fueled by that defense, are ready to jump up and seize a berth in the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis on Dec. 7.

Iowa comes out of its bye with two prime opportunities to prove itself — at Wisconsin on Nov. 9 and at home against undefeated Minnesota on Nov. 16. Those two games against ranked teams have now become the season within the season.

“I think those losses are part of our identity, but we’ve moved on and we’re a hungry team,” Iowa senior guard Landan Paulsen declared after the Northwestern game.

The leadership of veteran players like Landan and his twin brother, Levi, cannot be overstated. The Paulsen twins were the first two players junior running back Mekhi Sargent mentioned Saturday when he was asked what changed after the Hawkeyes lost two games in a row.

“We were at a sit-still, but we had to get over the hump,” Sargent said. “We found we have leaders everywhere, all over the facility.

“They (the Paulsen twins) are just always fired up, very energetic guys. They keep your spirits high, and those are two guys that you want on your team.”

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Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz was pleased with the things he saw on offense and defense in the Hawkeyes' 20-0 win in Evanston. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

Landan Paulsen said he’s noticed in his five years as a Hawkeye how much younger players are always watching older ones, modeling that behavior. That’s why things didn’t fall apart after Iowa’s offense managed only 15 points in the two losses — no one pointed fingers.

“I think it really comes down to just taking pride in our team,” Paulsen said.

And those younger players are getting more and more opportunities. That may have been the biggest theme to emerge between Iowa’s first and second bye weeks: There are rookies who seem ready to seize their moment.

That means true freshmen like Dane Belton, who has impressed defensive coordinator Phil Parker so much that he has taken over the cash position the past two games. Parker felt unable to use that fifth defensive back in the first six games. Iowa may not need to use it as much against Wisconsin’s power formations, but Belton is sure to be a factor in the final three games — against Minnesota, Illinois and Nebraska.

“We’re developing a real trust and comfort level with him,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said after Belton became the first true freshman to start a game this season, and just the 25th in Ferentz’s 21 years as head coach.

► More, for subscribers only: Hawk Central postgame podcast: Iowa 20, Northwestern 0

Sam LaPorta showed signs Saturday that he could be the playmaking tight end the Hawkeyes have been looking for all season after losing T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant to the NFL draft. The rookie had an early 34-yard grab overturned after replay review, but later showed that great athleticism again on a 41-yard catch and run. With senior Nate Wieting out with an ankle strain, perhaps it’s LaPorta’s time to shine.

“It’s just kind of forced us to put him in the water,” Ferentz said of LaPorta. “Maybe it’s a good thing.”

And then there’s Tyler Goodson, the flashy running back who has been pushing for more opportunities all season. He led Iowa with 58 rushing yards on 11 carries Saturday. He also showed his value by picking up a blitzer in the middle of the offensive line on a 50-yard touchdown pass from Nate Stanley to Tyrone Tracy in the first quarter.

“He doesn’t seem to be overwhelmed out there,” Ferentz said of Goodson. “He hasn’t looked out of place at all at any time this season.”

There is one segment of that season remaining for Iowa, and it’s by far the most important. The four games in November will test the veterans and rookies alike.

Buckle up.

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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