IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa’s ability to finish football games this season is not a 10-week rags-to-riches story, but an 11-month journey.
“We’ve got a good group of guys in the locker room that banded together in January and understood where we wanted to go this season,” senior center Austin Blythe said. “And it carried into summer workouts, and fall camp, and thorough this season, and improving each week. We’re just playing together and flying around, making plays.”
Now 9-0 heading into Saturday night’s sellout game against Minnesota, this team has found a way to win the close games that have gotten away with regularity of late. Over the previous five seasons, the Hawkeyes were 8-19 in games decided by a touchdown or less.
Not since 2009, the last time Iowa started 9-0, has a Hawkeye team had a winning record in games decided by a touchdown down or less. That 2009 team was 5-2.
Fives times this season, Iowa has entered the fourth quarter with the game hanging in the balance. Games at Iowa State and against Pittsburgh were tied with a quarter to play. The Hawkeyes had a one-point lead Saturday at Indiana, and a four-point lead at Wisconsin. Illinois got to within 23-20 with just over 10 minutes remaining.
Five challenges met head-on. Five victories to show for it.
“There’s never been a point in any game this season that we’ve felt like, 'Oh, man, we’re kind of nervous about the game,’ ” quarterback C.J. Beathard said.
When the fourth quarter arrives, Iowa has had the presence of mind to execute and make winning plays.
“The guys know it’s time to buckle down,” linebacker Cole Fisher said. “That’s what the fourth quarter is. It seems like everyone has taken that challenge and run with it. It’s been successful so far.”
The Hawkeyes have outscored their opponents 85-53 in the fourth quarter.
“It’s as much a mindset as anything,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of finishing games. “That’s something we didn’t do a good job of last year. We didn’t finish strong in a lot of regards, in our conference and our traditional way of play. We’ve played in a lot of close games, historically. So if we come up short in those games, we’re going to be in trouble. If we can finish them out and do it in a good way, we’ve got a chance.”
The beauty of Iowa’s stretch-drive success is that it’s taking place on both sides of the ball. The offense has been especially impressive. In the five games that were decided in the final 15 minutes, Iowa has run plays that gained at least 10 yards on 18 occasions: seven times against Indiana, five against Iowa State, four against Pittsburgh and two against Illinois.
Six of those 18 plays were receptions by Matt VandeBerg. Four were runs by Jordan Canzeri. And most of the time, the offensive line has given Beathard the time he’s needed to make winning plays at crunch time.
“Everyone has faith in each other,” left offensive guard Sean Welsh said. “Especially in that fourth quarter, you just batten down the hatches. It’s a feeling you have that everyone is going to do their job.”
Football is, and always has been, a game of peaks and valleys.
“How you handle them will determine your success and how good you are as a football team,” Blythe said.
So far, 9-0 good.
Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.