IOWA CITY, Ia. — As much as college football coaches lean on their pregame resources — practice reps, player meetings, film sessions and more — for team understanding, there are certain unknowns that go undetected until the stage lights flip on.
Can this individual handle that role at game speed? When sudden change rudely busts in and won’t leave, which unit can successfully navigate around it? Who can grind through frustration when things don’t click?
Even on a squad loaded with veteran pieces, every team meshes and vibes a little differently from year to year. Early-season questions are in abundance. Answers only come through experience.
In that regard, Iowa’s 13-3 win over Iowa State is soaked with value. Even in its ugliness, this Cy-Hawk affair had palpable tension through four adversity-filled quarters. Iowa’s offense sputtered in execution. The defense, even in its dominance, is tinkering with new parts and shouldering much responsibility. Saturday’s result wasn’t cemented until the final minutes.
Hawkeye football is often not the prettiest product; center Keegan Render acknowledged as much postgame. So with more such contests likely coming down the road this season, Saturday provided the first test for Iowa’s 2018 version.
A passing grade, in the only category that matters.
Iowa’s usually not a fancy team that’s going to score 40 points, so just knowing we’ve been here and we can grind through this helps keep everyone positive, Render said. You know, ‘Hey, we’re one block away. We’re just one play away from having a good drive.’
“As the season goes on, especially in the Big Ten, you’re going to have close games. And knowing that this was a close game and we pulled it out, it’s, ‘Hey, we’ve been through it before.’”
History indicates similar scenarios are imminent.
After Saturday, 108 of Iowa’s 203 games versus Power Five schools under Kirk Ferentz have been decided by fewer than 10 points — that’s 53 percent. Fifteen of Ferentz’s 19 full seasons in Iowa City have seen five or more such scenarios occur, including every year since 2006. No Ferentz-led team has ever had fewer than three.
The bottom line: More tight situations are coming. They’ll wear different hats — an offensive shootout or a grind fest like Cy-Hawk — but Iowa will encounter these moments again. Gaining something from every pressure snap is critical.
“It's the nature of college football,” Ferentz said. “Typically, as the games (go), we're going to have probably 12 of those. Every now and then, you get one or two that (aren’t close), but that's not something you can predict here.
"That's part of a team learning how to do things. I think our team's toughness kept us in the game. Fortunately, in that fourth quarter, we found a little, reached down and did some things that were really positive. So I'm hoping, offensively, we can learn from that. It's there. We've just got to dig a little deeper.”
For an offense that stumbled as much as Iowa’s did Saturday, its final act revealed the worth in quality leadership.
After the Hawkeyes’ first nine drives produced four punts, two missed field goals, six points and a kneel down before the half, one could envision a collectively rattled mindset. Toren Young and Mekhi Sargent uncovered few running lanes. The wide receivers had three catches. Even established pieces Nate Stanley and Noah Fant had forgettable days.
Yet, this is precisely where teams learn to fight. Not during a practice drill or in a position group meeting. On the field, under the lights, with the outcome in doubt. Clinging to a 6-3 lead, the Hawkeyes responded with their best drive of the year.
“I think, for us — especially on offense — it’s just leadership,” Fant said. “Obviously, Nate (Stanley) and then up-front — and (Nick) Easley with the receivers and Brady Ross — it’s just keeping people together.
“It obviously wasn’t going the way we wanted to. We weren’t having great drives, but just staying together and knowing we’re eventually going to have a chance to go out there and win the game. It’s going to happen. So I think the biggest thing is just staying together and staying the course.”
Although things unfolded more smoothly, defensively, that unit wasn’t adversity-free.
Iowa continues to shuffle its linebacker lineups, both by curiosity and necessity. Jack Hockday for Amani Jones was known earlier in the week, but a pregame twist arrived when Djimon Colbert started in place of the dinged-up Kristian Welch. None of those options are particularly seasoned with high-leverage experience.
Hockday was solid for a second straight week. Colbert helped limit Iowa State’s potent offensive weapons alongside linebacker Nick Niemann. But all are still growing in expanded roles — and a game like Saturday’s can only expedite the process.
There’s no question Iowa would like things to run cleaner next week against Northern Iowa before Big Ten play commences. There’s no easing into the conference slate as Wisconsin waltzes into Kinnick on Sept. 22, with its top-10 ranking and playoff aspirations.
If the Hawkeyes are to emerge victorious that day — or on any other Big Ten Saturday — the tension and pressure will likely mirror Saturday’s. The quicker Iowa gets comfortable grinding in the muck, the better.
“We’re going to be in close games, and it’s good for that to happen in some of the early games where we have to grind it out,” Fant said. “Just so you can get used to that feeling.”
Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.