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MINNEAPOLIS — It’s halfway through the season, and the only thing you can declare with certainty about Iowa’s football team is you can’t declare anything with certainty about it.
Normally, that’s not a good thing. But it sure was Saturday afternoon at TCF Bank Stadium. Had the Hawkeyes gotten beaten, and because of the same unpleasant tendencies they’d shown in recent weeks, it would be a dreary midseason outlook in Hawkeyetown.
Now? Now you can’t slam the door on the possibility of Iowa returning to Indianapolis for a second-straight year. It will take a lot more improvement than you saw Saturday, but at least it’s still out there.
Iowa flipped its narrative back to something positive with a 14-7 victory over Minnesota. It wasn’t a transformation from mediocrity to greatness, nor did it open a clear path to repeating as Big Ten West champions. But it was all the result the team could have wanted coming up here.
“I thought they really competed hard out there and showed a lot of grit, mental fortitude, and played with a lot of toughness,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said.
By what Ferentz judges important, that was a wedding-sized verbal bouquet. And why not? His guys were down 7-6 with under six minutes left in the game, and from then forward his offense and defense both did what was required to win.
The Hawkeyes never cowered, never choked. They played with more authority and confidence than they have recently.
Yes, there was plenty of nothingness on offense in too much of the game. But the Hawkeyes stayed with what they believed would eventually work, and it did when Akrum Wadley sprang free for the 54-yard touchdown run that may have saved the season. Or at least prevented it from spiraling out of control.
After the previous week’s 38-31 loss at Northwestern, who was really sure this road game against rushing-loving Minnesota wouldn’t be the tipping point?
Iowa’s leaky run defense against a good rushing team? Not here. Sealing the deal defensively late in the game for a change? Done.
The Hawkeye defense shooed the Gophers away with far more success than Bill Murray’s crackpot “Caddyshack” character ever knew. For once, field position and time of possession were Iowa’s to have and to hold.
“The whole team was grinding today,” said Hawkeye sophomore safety Brandon Snyder, who had an interception and a fumble recovery and may have had his personal light bulb come on here.
“We had that desperation mentality out there all week in practice,” Iowa cornerback Greg Mabin said. “We knew we needed it, knew we weren’t going to be denied, and that we were going to do whatever it takes to get this win.”
That’s easy to say when you do actually win, but what was visible from the defense matched the description of Mabin. Who, by the way, covered Minnesota receiver Brian Smith beautifully in the end zone on the Gophers’ final offensive play.
These 4-2 Hawkeyes are so undefined. They have an offense that has sputtered a lot the last four games, yet Wadley and LeShun Daniels are so perpetually dangerous and were easily a better 1-2 running back punch Saturday than Minnesota’s Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith.
Iowa’s defense has been brutalized by opposing rushing attacks, but has held two Big Ten opponents to seven points apiece on the road. The Hawkeyes’ 2009 Orange Bowl and 2015 Rose Bowl teams didn’t limit two league foes to single digits.
The offense moved its left tackle to right tackle, its right tackle to left guard, and its left guard to left tackle, and the line looked more coherent than it has in a month.
Freshman Manny Rugamba picked off a Mitch Leidner second-quarter pass to claim more interceptions in 2016 than Desmond King, who had eight a year ago. Yet, King looks every bit the Jim Thorpe Award winner he was last year, and more. He seems to get a little better every week.
No, you can’t declare much yet about this year’s Hawkeyes. Except that they’ve chosen to fight rather than to fade away. And they grunted their way to keeping a bronzed pig. Those aren’t small things.