Leistikow: Hawkeyes can have fun again after winning tight Big Ten game

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Nate Stanley’s long pass to Noah Fant seemed to hang in the chilly Kinnick Stadium air forever.

"I think we got a call from the FAA on that one," Kirk Ferentz joked.

The ball landed softly in Fant’s hands at the Minnesota 10-yard line, and the Hawkeye tight end caught it and scooted into the end zone for a game-breaking touchdown in Iowa’s 17-10 win Saturday night before 66,292 fans.

Noah Fant (87) reacts to his 45-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter.

After his score gave the Hawkeyes a two-touchdown lead, Fant had a little fun — pretending to row a boat, obviously poking at the renowned slogan of first-year Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck.

The imagery was hard to miss, given Fant’s emotions a week ago.

Then, he was thrown a bullet pass that he flat-out dropped — the last of many frustrating plays in a tough-to-swallow 17-10 overtime loss at Northwestern.

"I was itching to get back on the field (the next day)," Fant said. "Ending the game like that is not ideal. Obviously, as a competitor you want to get back on the field and show that's not me every play."

Seven days after his eyes were red and welling with tears during postgame interviews, he was a kid with unbridled joy.

Yeah, the "Row the Boat" celebration part planned, part spur of the moment.

"I can't lie, it was a little bit of both," said Fant, who had three catches for a team-best 67 yards. "It's a big game for us, it's a big game for them.

"We thought we'd bring a little spice into our game."

And now Iowa is 9-1 in its last 10 trophy games since the start of the 2015 season.

Even Akrum Wadley, who scored Iowa's first touchdown, had a little postgame fun.

After last week's barrage of short answers, someone asked Wadley his first question.

His response?

"No comment."

Just kidding, he said, before flashing his signature wide smile.

That happy symbolism pertains to the Hawkeye football team, of course, too.

After last week, any kind of performance Saturday night that could produce a win (and happiness) was absolutely necessary. Anthony Nelson's sack of Demry Croft in the final minute sealed the deal in an impressive defensive performance.

Now 5-3 overall and 2-3 in Big Ten Conference play, Iowa at least has some positive momentum going into back-to-back games against likely top-five opponents Ohio State and Wisconsin.

"We needed this," running back Akrum Wadley said, "in the worst way."

It certainly wasn’t easy.

That Iowa offense we hoped to crank things up?

It looked great on an opening-series touchdown drive of 80 yards.

Then came five straight possessions of three plays or less.

Progress isn't easy.

Then in the third quarter came the Fant long ball, which gave Iowa a 14-0 lead that would stand up, despite the Golden Gophers' late charge.

It shouldn’t be lost that Stanley put the deep ball perfectly (and I mean, perfectly) behind cornerback Justus Harris. The Iowa quarterback, maligned at times for his inaccurate deep balls, was probably the team’s offensive MVP Saturday night.

What we learned:Iowa 17, Minnesota 10

His continued growth is measurable, an encouraging barometer for things to come.

And when the Hawkeyes needed a clutch play to close this thing out?

Stanley again looked toward Fant.

No hesitation from sophomore to sophomore on third-and-6 with under 4 minutes to go. Stanley fired across the middle. Fant caught it for a 17-yard gain.

"I thought we made some really good plays. Both sides of the ball," Ferentz said. "... The biggest thing is the guys fought, and they fought all 60 minutes."

This team is growing. It may not be happening at the pace armchair quarterbacks would like, but it's happening.

Take it. Enjoy it. See you next Saturday when the Buckeyes come to town.

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.