Saturday, October 17, 2009
Hawkeyes keep winning with substance over style
By ESPN.com staff ESPN.com
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
MADISON, Wis. -- At some point down the line, Iowa will need to showcase some style points.
It's an unfortunate reality in a sport without a playoff. Winning simply isn't good enough. Teams are required to be flashy and dominant in victory, and as the Hawkeyes continue their path toward a possible undefeated season, they'll need to win pretty.
AP Photo/Andy Manis
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz leads the best team in the Big Ten.
But Kirk Ferentz and his players don't care about that right now. They've developed a formula for both achieving success and handling it, and they're showing no signs of slowing down.
Iowa's latest example came in Saturday's 20-10 victory over Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium. For the sixth time in seven games, the Hawkeyes came from behind to win. For the second time in as many Big Ten road games, Iowa rallied from a 10-0 deficit in a hostile stadium.
They won Saturday with clutch third-and-long conversions and critical defensive stops.
They didn't show much leg, but they showed plenty of heart.
"We're certainly not the prettiest car in the lot," said Ferentz, whose team is off to its best start since 1985. "But that's OK. We're not going to be a big style-points team."
Iowa's success stems from a mindset that every game will be difficult. Rankings and records are meaningless, and entitlement doesn't exist.
The players understand adversity is inevitable, and they've experienced it in almost every imaginable form this year: season-ending injuries in the preseason (running back Jewel Hampton, cornerback Jordan Bernstine); key losses during nonconference play (left tackle Bryan Bulaga, tight end Tony Moeaki, wide receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos); the flu spreading through the team last week; and numerous third-and-long situations in Saturday's game.
And every time, the Hawkeyes have had an answer.
"We don't expect the worst, but we don't expect anything to be easy," said quarterback Ricky Stanzi, the poster boy for the team's resilient play this season. "It doesn't get any easier from here on out. There's a bunch of good teams we've got to play, so we can't hang our hats on the ranking, a number, or anything like that."
Iowa fans can hang their hats on these numbers.
After Ohio State's loss to Purdue, Iowa is clearly the No. 1 team in the Big Ten and Sunday will enter the top 10 in the polls. The Hawkeyes are riding an 11-game win streak, the second longest in the country, and have reached the midpoint of arguably the toughest conference road slate in the country.
"The more we win, the higher we become ranked, the more teams are going to target us," Johnson-Koulianos said. "As we win more, the stakes are going to be raised."
The stakes were raised Saturday, and the Hawkeyes repeatedly came through with their backs to the wall.
Wisconsin's aggressive defense racked up a whopping 13 tackles for loss, but almost all of them occurred on first or second down. Iowa converted four third downs of four yards or longer in the second half, including a third-and-13 as Stanzi found tight end Tony Moeaki for 27 yards.
Stanzi and Moeaki hooked up for a 24-yard touchdown strike to tie the score midway through the third quarter. Predictably, the play took place on third-and-7. Iowa's repeated conversions eventually took a toll on the Badgers defenders.
"They die a little bit inside," Hawkeyes wideout Trey Stross said.
Iowa, meanwhile, seems to draw life from the toughest situations, perhaps because they've been in so many this season.
"I love third downs," Johnson-Koulianos said. "It's my favorite down because of the sense of urgency, how huge they become in the game. I love third-and-13. I love third-and-24 -- that's my favorite."
Ferentz disagrees, but he loves what he saw from his defense after a rough start.
Wisconsin bulldozed Iowa for 10 early points behind running back John Clay, but the Hawkeyes didn't allow a point for the final 38:09. Clay didn't look the same after a right ankle injury in the second quarter, but he didn't have much room to run, either. Cornerback Amari Spievey recorded two interceptions, and linebacker A.J. Edds had a huge second half for the Hawkeyes.
Iowa's best stand came after its only major mistake, a Stanzi fumble at the Hawkeyes' 25-yard line. With the game still knotted at 10-10, the Hawkeyes didn't allow a first down and Wisconsin missed a field goal.
"Our job is to put the fire out," said linebacker Pat Angerer, who led Iowa with nine tackles, a sack and a pass breakup. "It's as simple as that. We just said, 'We're back out here, we might as well stop them.'"
Sounds like a motto.
Since the Hawkeyes are winning games, they might as well keep it up.
"We're going to win how we win," Johnson-Koulianos said. "A W's a W."