PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Save the complaints for a Saturday to be named later.
On this day, getting out of New Jersey with a win is all that matters.
“You play to win,” tight end George Kittle said after the 25th-ranked Hawkeyes escaped their first trip to Rutgers with a 14-7 victory. “And winning’s hard.”
Iowa sure made it look hard, too. But that’s OK.
Remember how you felt a week ago when the Hawkeyes didn’t look great — and they lost as a 14.5-point favorite against North Dakota State?
Winning ugly is OK.
“We’re excited to get out of here with the win — 1-0 in the Big Ten,” quarterback C.J. Beathard said. “No matter how you do it.”
It took a timely fourth-quarter fumble recovery by Brandon Snyder to help Iowa win this conference opener on the road.
Sound familiar? It should. The Hawkeyes weren’t sexy to open last year’s Big Ten campaign, but they beat Wisconsin 10-6, thanks in large part to Faith Ekakatie recovering Joel Stave’s fourth-quarter fumble from the 1-yard line.
Without that fight-to-the-finish victory, Iowa probably doesn’t win the Big Ten West in 2015.
Certainly Rutgers isn’t anywhere near Wisconsin’s class in program stature. Iowa was a 14.5-point favorite here, too. But Saturday’s choppy game had a similar feel to the one a year ago at Camp Randall Stadium, and may end up carrying just as much importance.
A loss before 44,061 at High Point Solutions Stadium, and the Hawkeyes’ problems might’ve been just beginning.
Instead, there’s something to build on going into next week’s homecoming matchup against Northwestern.
“We’ve got a lot of stuff to correct. A lot of stuff to correct,” linebacker Bo Bower said. “And we will. Just like we did last week.”
A week ago, Iowa couldn’t move the chains with a late 21-20 lead to finish off North Dakota State.
On Saturday, after the defense delivered a fourth-down stand with Rutgers trying to score the tying touchdown, the Hawkeye offense cranked out two rushing first downs behind LeShun Daniels Jr. and took the clock to 0:00 without giving the ball back.
The Iowa running back had 13 carries for 77 yards.
The defense came through when it mattered. So did the offense.
“From a positive standpoint,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said, “the best thing our football team did today was the fight they showed at the end of both halves.”
This was a business trip, and Iowa took care of business — not that the meetings this week are going to be pleasant.
There are some big-time concerns hovering over this team.
The leaky run defense seems to be an ongoing thing.
Mental errors are adding up to costly penalty yardage.
Wide receivers just aren’t getting open.
And that dreadful second-half offense: 59 total yards last week, 76 this week. That trend can't continue.
“We put together a good drive,” Kittle said, “then we sputter for a couple.”
Iowa, through four games, simply hasn't looked like a team that can win the Big Ten West.
But champions aren’t crowned in September. If they were, you could send the trophy to Wisconsin, which has notched impressive victories against LSU and Michigan State in its 4-0 start. Ferentz often remarks how his best teams take big steps forward after September struggles.
In four weeks, the Badgers come to Kinnick Stadium to finish Iowa's four-game October schedule, all against Big Ten West foes.
The tougher tests are coming.
But passing this one helps those mean a lot more.
“We know we can play better,” cornerback Desmond King said. “We’re going to correct our mistakes.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.