Resilient Hawkeyes: 'This season can be very special'
IOWA CITY, Ia. – Take that, Nebraska game of Black Friday 2014. That one, the loss that bugged Kirk Ferentz all offseason and pretty much prompted all the changes that you're seeing this September, was officially put out of its misery Saturday night.
Marshall Koehn's rocket 57-yard field goal as time expired to beat Pittsburgh 27-24 in front of 63,636 Kinnick Stadium fans pounded the last nail in that coffin. This season has a completely different feel, to say the least.
C.J. Beathard is your quarterback today, but would he have been if the Hawkeyes didn't melt down in a 37-34 loss to the Cornhuskers to close last year's regular season? Iowa let a 17-point second-half lead get away on that day after special-teams shortfalls and costly mistakes by Jake Rudock. That loss meant a disappointing 7-5, not an acceptable 8-4. It re-opened a quarterback competition and, after Beathard was named starter Jan. 8, instilled cultural changes.
One of the many changes – on top of the shovel passes, fake field goals and rugby punts – was a culture of togetherness, doing the little things right and a focus on finishing games.
"We want to make sure we're the aggressors," Iowa receiver Matt VandeBerg said. "One of our mottoes is, 'The fourth quarter's gotta be ours.' Being able to push through that fourth quarter with a minute left ... we put ourselves in those types of situations all the time in practice."
In the first home night game at Kinnick in three years, it looked like the Panthers might deliver a Nebraska-like gut punch to the Hawkeyes, who led 17-7 at halftime. Pitt converted two fourth downs, including a fourth-and-15, on the way to a tying touchdown with 52 seconds left.
But in these Hawkeyes' minds, Pitt (2-1) scored too quickly. Instead of playing for overtime (remember Ohio State in 2009?), Ferentz went for the win in regulation. Having a versatile guy like Beathard doesn't hurt.
"He looks like a nice guy and he is a really nice guy. He's a nice young man," Ferentz said. "But I'll tell you, he's hard as nails."
Beathard looked up at a clock that showed 44 seconds left and Iowa at its own 30-yard line after Desmond King's 27-yard kickoff return. With two timeouts in its pocket, Iowa felt it had plenty of time.
"The message was, we've just got to go get ours now," center Austin Blythe said, "and win the game."
Beathard rewarded that aggression. The junior rushed for 27 of the drive's 31 yards on three scrambles. That's all Koehn needed to flush Nebraska 2014 with one gorgeous kick.
"It shows (Ferentz) has confidence in us to do the job," said Beathard, who threw for 258 yards and ran for 39 and a touchdown. "And we did it today. And that'll let him know for the future games, we can take those chances."
And now Iowa is 3-0 for the first time since 2009. That's significant, because that was Ferentz's last great Hawkeye team – the one that went 11-2 and won the Orange Bowl.
But perhaps more significant is how Iowa is winning. A week ago, the Hawkeyes were outplayed in the first half by Iowa State, then pitched a second-half shutout and scored two touchdowns in the final 2:14 to win 31-17. This time, Iowa was the fast starter, but showed resiliency after squandering a double-digit lead.
"I feel like in the past two weeks, we've been put in every situation," said Iowa senior Tevaun Smith, who had three catches for 73 yards. "We've been bringing the ball from the 1-yard line all the way out. Kicking almost a 60-yard field goal. We've been tied in the fourth quarter and came out with a win the past two weeks. Those situations show a lot about the team. So if we continue to do that, this season can be very special for us."
Ferentz's best teams have been good on defense. Saturday, Iowa held a smash-mouth running team to just 55 yards on the ground.
A year ago, Iowa allowed 168.3 rushing yards per game. This year, Iowa has allowed 153 total rushing yards in three.
"We weren't good enough on the outside last year, and we didn't finish well last year, either," Ferentz said. "So as a coach, I've got to tell you, I'm really happy and pleased with that."
North Texas, which fell to 0-2 Saturday with a 38-24 home loss to Rice, is all that separates the Hawkeyes from going to Wisconsin on Oct. 3 with a 4-0 record.
Jordan Canzeri, a fifth-year senior who is the epitome of resiliency, said coaches are already harping them not to be complacent.
"We celebrate, and we'll be very happy about this win," said Canzeri, who rushed for 49 yards and two touchdowns. "And tomorrow we've got to focus on the next team and fight and push harder than we have. Because we want to continue to build."