Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz delivers his opening statement after the Hawkeyes improved to 5-2 overall. Hawk Central
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Anyone who chooses to soak in Iowa football as a recreational hobby can choose to feel however they want.
Not enthused about the way the 22nd-ranked Hawkeyes beat Purdue 26-20 before 69,250 fans at Kinnick Stadium?
Hey, that’s your choice. And based on social media, a lot of you made that choice.
But I stand with Kirk Ferentz and Hawkeye players this week.
Wins are good.
Wins are worth celebrating.
A Purdue team (and coach) that has had your number two years in a row?
A Purdue team that blew out another Big Ten team by 26 points a week ago?
A Purdue team with probably more speed than any team in the conference's West Division?
No, beating Purdue doesn't deserve a parade. But yeah, you take that six-point win — which looked closer than it was, thanks to a meaningless touchdown with 24 seconds left — and savor it. Especially after one-score losses to Michigan and Penn State the past two weeks.
“To get back in the 'W' column,” defensive end A.J. Epenesa said after Iowa improved to 5-2, “that’s all we wanted.”
You may have heard that Bob Sanders, perhaps the most revered Hawkeye of the 21-year Kirk Ferentz era, was Saturday’s honorary game captain. Sanders’ presence reminded Ferentz of what the coach calls one of the program’s most important wins, during the turnaround season of 2001.
Iowa had just lost back-to-back games and welcomed Antwaan Randle-El’s Indiana squad to Kinnick. The Hoosiers’ pesky offense frustrated Iowa to the tune of 308 rushing yards, but the Hawkeyes scored late and held on for a 42-28 win.
“At some point, you’ve just got to find a way to get it done,” Ferentz said after his 157th head-coaching win at Iowa. “It's not always going to be pretty. That (2001) game was hard and difficult, but it gave us a chance to have a little momentum moving forward.
“And, when you're in conference football, that's just what you have to expect. When it is easy, boy, you go home that night saying, ‘How did that happen?’
“I'm proud of our guys, the way they persevered.”
That’s what I saw Saturday: a team with toughness that turned back a pesky Jeff Brohm offense that bit them badly and painfully the past two years.
This win was about Nate Stanley (23 of 33, 260 yards) fighting to the finish.
After the quarterback’s only big mistake of the game — a poorly thrown ball that deflected off the hands of Tyler Goodson into the arms of Purdue’s Dedrick Mackey — he didn’t sulk. He sprinted to cut off the speeding, 185-pound cornerback carrying the football and tackled him hard, short of the Iowa goal line.
“I’m not going to back down. You can hit me 100 times, but I’m going to continue to fight,” said Stanley, a gritty senior who might as well have been talking to his biggest critics in the Kinnick stands. “I’m going to do everything I can to help my teammates.”
This win was about the defense banding together in clutch moments.
Immediately after the interception, Iowa’s 19-7 lead could’ve shrunk to 19-14 in a hurry. Phil Parker told his defense: "This is our test for today."
And with first-and-goal from the 9, Purdue went ... backward. A 1-yard loss, a near-interception by Djimon Colbert and an incomplete pass hurried by Chauncey Golston forced Purdue to settle for a field goal. And it remained a two-score game, at 19-10, with 11:36 to play.
"Our mindset is always to put the fire out if that happens," said safety Geno Stone, who earlier caused and recovered a fumble that thwarted a Purdue first-half red-zone entry. "Give credit to our defensive line, they really had the quarterback running around back there."
This win was about a beleaguered offensive line breaking through.
The whole stadium knew Iowa was going to try to run the ball from Purdue’s 35 with 2:59 to go and a 19-13 lead. The Hawkeyes, to that point, had rushed for a measly 2.3 yards a carry against one of the Big Ten’s weaker defenses.
But when it came time to put the game away, they found a way to carve a few holes.
Iowa offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs didn't know there is a meme of him awkwardly hugging Keith Duncan after a kick Saturday. Hear his reaction: Hawk Central
Mekhi Sargent ran for 21 yards, then 14 — a second effort taking him into the end zone — to put the game out of reach at 26-13.
“Four quarters. Keep pounding the ball,” said Tyler Linderbaum, the freshman center who was well aware of the heat Iowa’s interior offensive line had been feeling. “And eventually, we’ll break some big runs.”
Iowa made enough winning plays Saturday.
And it didn’t listen to the noise.
When players heard Kinnick fans booing as they headed to the locker room Saturday, offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs was reminded by Stanley that he was fighting for the guys wearing Hawkeye helmets — not anybody else. The Hawkeyes came out of halftime and banded together to turn a 9-7 lead into 19-7 by the first play of the fourth quarter.
And here’s a news flash: Purdue plays hard. This is a young, hungry team that will be a West contender in 2020.
The Boilermakers threw everything they could at the Hawkeyes.
“They run a lot of different plays out of a lot of different formations,” Epenesa said. “They do a great job at trying to confuse us today, and they moved the ball effectively against us. But we were able to get some key stops when we needed it.”
Moments after Iowa’s win, the news started to spread that No. 6 Wisconsin had been stunned on a last-second field goal by Illinois. The Badgers, favored by 31 points, went down.
I’ll bet their fans would love to take a one-point win today instead of a one-point loss.
Choose to be happy about a Big Ten win. Or don’t.
Here’s what Wirfs thinks.
“I’m pretty happy right now. We’re pretty happy to be on the win train,” Wirfs said. “It was a hard-fought game; that’s how it’s going to be in conference play.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.