Cy-Hawk trophy swarm sends message about 2-0 Hawkeyes

Chad Leistikow
Iowa junior wide receiver Riley McCarron, a former prep athlete from Dubuque Wahlert, pulls in the go-ahead touchdown reception in the fourth quarter against Iowa State during the Cy-Hawk series on Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015, at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames, Iowa.

AMES, Ia. – Slowly, in a swarm of padded and helmeted humanity, every Iowa football player in uniform Saturday night walked from his own sideline to Iowa State's with a trophy to capture. Nobody ran.

They went together to celebrate a gritty, unifying 31-17 victory over the Cyclones as one in front of what was left of the sellout crowd of 61,500 at Jack Trice Stadium.

"That's who we want to be this year," said fifth-year senior center Austin Blythe, who had lost three of the last four in the Cy-Hawk series. "That's what we talked about all winter long, all summer long. That kind of symbolizes what we've been talking about as a team."

BROWN: Redemption puts Iowa at 2-0

The imagery screams change. This team is more together than it was in 2014, when there was dejecting disappointment. Quarterback C.J. Beathard said in a Big Ten Network interview this week that the roster that went 7-6 lacked leadership — the guys that you need to fight through to victories on nights like this when things don't go so well at first.

"We made our mind up in January, we're worried about 2015," head coach Kirk Ferentz said after completing a second consecutive 2-0 start. But this one feels so much different from a year ago, when Iowa escaped Northern Iowa and Ball State before losing to Iowa State in Week 3. That 20-17 loss at Kinnick Stadium festered, in the program and in the fan base.

Iowa Takeaways: Ott's wrist, Beathard's legs, VandeBerg's hands

Now, the Hawkeyes have a trophy to put in the case at their sprawling new Football Performance Center.

"One thing we had a hard time doing last year was maybe winning on the road in a tough circumstance where it was going against us a little bit," Ferentz said. "The thing I'm proud of today, they hung together, they fought hard and they closed the game out."

The circumstances weren't easy Saturday. Iowa State was slinging the ball all over the place in the second quarter, and star defensive end Drew Ott was knocked out of the game with a left arm injury.

It almost seemed like an upset that the Hawkeyes were trailing just 17-10 at halftime.

"Early on, it was kind of rough for us," said Beathard, who played turnover-free ball for the second straight week. He threw for 215 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 77. "The defense wasn't doing very well and neither was the offense. But the second half, the defense played lights-out."

Everyone for Iowa did.

Suddenly, things started falling Iowa's way. Matt VandeBerg scooped a fumble by Henry Krieger Coble inside Iowa State's 5 and scored to tie it at 17-all on Iowa's first drive of the second half.

The defense began disrupting Iowa State quarterback Sam Richardson, who went 12-for-15 in the first half but 7-for-20 in the second. No impressive halftime speeches, Ferentz said. No major adjustments, either.

Matt VandeBerg's signature plays draw Cy-Hawk spotlight

Just better football, from Beathard's 48-yard pass to VandeBerg on third-and-21 to Dillon Kidd's long, angled punts to blanket coverage from Iowa's defensive backs. Beathard hit Riley McCarron for a 25-yard touchdown with 2:14 remaining to snap the tie. A fan base exhaled.

"We had a rough start coming out," said defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson, who had a key third-down sack of Richardson in the second half. "But we knew what we had to do. We got our thoughts together and calmed down. We came out the second half the way we needed to."

And now Iowa is 2-0. That's big for a program that ended 2014 on a three-game losing streak and with a 0-4 mark in the trophy department — losses to Iowa State, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Nebraska.

STATUS REPORT: Second-half rally gets Iowa a (Cy-Hawk) trophy

Losing to either Illinois State or Iowa State to start the season would've been largely unpalatable to the Hawkeye fan base. Now, there's a validation of eight months of a changed focus and (yes, it sounds cliché) togetherness fostered from the ugly 2014 finish. Iowa really needed this.

"It's been (building) since January," said Iowa running back Jordan Canzeri, another fifth-year senior. He rushed for 124 yards, 92 after halftime. "All the work we've put in through the offseason is coming out now and showing on the field. It's exactly what we wanted to do."

And up next, Iowa hosts Pittsburgh. The last game at Kinnick Stadium saw a crowd of less than 60,000 for the first time in 12 years. That won't be the case at 7 p.m. Saturday. It might not be a sellout, but the feel-good feeling is coming back to Hawkeye football — especially to the guys that matter, the ones in that trophy-grabbing swarm.

"Really proud of our guys the way they hung in there," Ferentz said. "And as we look forward, if we're going to be competitive in November the way we want to be, you've got to find a way to win games like this."