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Iowa center Keegan Render discusses the progress the Hawkeyes have made over the past two weeks, and how to keep it going. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — The final score from Kinnick Stadium on Sept. 22 is part of the permanent Hawkeye football record. 

Wisconsin 28, Iowa 17.

But a clear observation from that loss was that the Hawkeyes had substantially closed the gap on the top program in the Big Ten Conference’s West Division … if not pulled even. For three quarters that Saturday night, Iowa was the better team. But it wasn’t in the quarter that mattered most.

I’m not talking moral victories here.

But in looking objectively at Iowa’s stated goal of winning Big Ten championships, the Hawkeyes now seem on the verge of taking the next step: winning consistently and even impressively, just like Wisconsin does.

Iowa’s first game since that loss, following a bye, comes at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Minnesota. Although both teams’ records are identical — 3-1 overall, 0-1 in the Big Ten — this is the type of game the Hawkeyes can dominate.

The Badgers sure have.

Since the 2010 season, when a fake punt inside Kinnick Stadium was seemingly the moment that turned the Iowa-Wisconsin rivalry one-sided, Wisconsin has recorded double-digit victories against Minnesota in all eight of their meetings. The average final score in the battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe is Wisconsin 33.5, Minnesota 14.75.

In that same span, Iowa is 5-3 against the Gophers, with an average final score of Iowa 23, Minnesota 21.5 in the battle for Floyd of Rosedale.

That's playing too close to the fire. 

Minnesota is still rebuilding under P.J. Fleck. Fifty-two percent of its players (59 out of 113) are freshmen. The Gophers' top two players, one on each side of the ball, are out for the season. They start a true freshman quarterback. 

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Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley on one area for improvement. Plus, why aren't Hawkeyes throwing to running backs as much? Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

Iowa has an experienced quarterback, two of the league's top tight ends, an impressive-to-date offensive line and one of the country's top defenses.

This is not a game to try to keep close and hope to win in the final minutes.

"Just impose our will on them and move them off the ball," offensive lineman Cole Banwart said of the goal in any game. "Be more physical, tougher and show dominance over them.”

Hawkeye players can sense they’re close to something special.

And if you look closely enough at the numbers, you can understand why.

The defense has been impressive, with a chance to be elite. The Hawkeyes are third nationally in total defense (260.5 yards per game) and tied for fifth in scoring defense (13.0 points).

As Iowa senior center Keegan Render pointed out: “Our defense is going to be good in games. If we do what we do — and we know what we’re capable of — then we’re going to be all right.”

That’s been the rub.

Iowa’s offense has been wildly inconsistent under second-year coordinator Brian Ferentz, but it's brimming with potential.

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Iowa sophomore Ivory Kelly-Martin says his ankle is feeling good and the offense is on the right track entering Saturday's game at Minnesota. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

“Our offense has all the ability to put up as many points as we can,” running back Ivory Kelly-Martin said, “no matter what defense is out there.”

Over the past nine games, the offense has looked borderline unstoppable in four of them — 487 yards against Ohio State (7.0 per play), 505 yards at Nebraska (7.5), 545 against Northern Iowa (6.7) and 404 against Wisconsin two weeks ago (7.5). That’s 1,941 yards and an average of 7.14 yards per play.

They’ve been dreadful in the other five — 1,147 total yards and 3.68 per play — against Wisconsin last season, Purdue, Boston College, Northern Illinois and Iowa State.

The good news: Iowa’s gotten the good version of its offense the past two games.

Can the streak reach three in a row?

That’ll be the question. And the Hawkeyes know the formula involves fast starts.

Players watched the film of Maryland whipping this Minnesota team, 42-13, two weeks ago.

“Maryland was able to come out fast,” receiver Nick Easley said. “They did some things in the passing game and were able to get rolling. And just keep their foot on the gas.”

A good lesson that Iowa coaches have taken to heart.

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Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz was asked about the impact of Ivory Kelly-Martin, and also ended up referencing Toren Young and Mekhi Sargent. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

They're preaching the importance of starting games fast.

Render beautifully explained the benefits, beyond the obvious of scoring points.

“Even if we don’t score, just get a couple first downs. Just get something going,” Render said. “Because the more we get going, the more that they have to show us what they’re going to do (defensively) the whole game instead of just going three-and-out, three-and-out, three-and-out.”

In Week 1, Noah Fant dropped what almost certainly would have been a 67-yard touchdown pass on the game’s third play. Punt.

In Week 2, Iowa opened the Iowa State game with a delay-of-game penalty. Punt.

In road losses last year at Michigan State, Northwestern and Wisconsin, the Hawkeye offense didn’t score a first-quarter point.

“Getting off to a fast start is big, especially on the road,” Render said. “Getting out there and getting some rhythm and getting going is the biggest thing for us. After that, you know, we’re confident that we’re going to move the ball.”

Iowa is a 7-point favorite Saturday.

The Hawkeyes’ current three-game win streak in the series has produced wins by 5, 7 and 7 points. Sure, those each count just as much as a win by four touchdowns. But … play enough tight games, and you’re going to lose a time or two. Moreover, you'll annually sabotage that goal of a Big Ten championship, which has eluded Iowa since 2004.

Kirk Ferentz said something interesting toward the end of his Tuesday news conference. Something that revealed that he, too, knows that this Hawkeye team has the firepower and capability to do something special.

“I think we have a real window of opportunity here over the next eight weeks,” Ferentz said, “if we do things right and practice well."

Saturday, Iowa has a prime chance to show it can be dominant — and begin imposing its will on the rest of the Big Ten West.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

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