Howe: Turning Point?

While Iowa's win in East Lansing on Saturday was surprising, it wasn't a shocker. Kirk Ferentz and his Hawkeyes have a history of responding.

You would have been committed predicting an Iowa win in East Lansing three weeks ago. If you live among that group of people, please feel free to exit the loony bin. You didn't belong there in the first place.

Some folks often are fooled into feeling like sports are predictable. The Hawkeye Nation is no different.

Really, there was reasonable doubt in the land. Iowa left Kinnick Stadium Sept. 22 licking wounds after loss to a bad, and arguably awful, Central Michigan team.

But there the Hawkeyes were, underdogs of more than a touchdown going toe to toe with Michigan State Saturday in hostile territory. After the second overtime, there was a pile of Hawkeyes in white jerseys celebrating a 19-16 win at Spartan Stadium.

Does it make sense? Yes. It does.

Central Michigan (2-4) lost to Navy, 31-13, Friday night in Mount Pleasant in case you missed it. I saw that score on the message boards with the common "sky is falling" mentality of the genre.

However, the team that faced MSU on Saturday wasn't the one that fell to the Chippewas. That squad would have been pounded in East Lansing.

The Hawkeyes took another step forward from their 31-17 win against Minnesota on Sept. 29. They obviously put the bye week to good use.

People expected a grind-it game and that's what they got Saturday. Even with two overtimes, the teams combined for 35 points, three ticks below what the Vegas Mirage showed the total at Saturday morning.

With offense being scarce, Iowa made enough plays. The visitors also produced balance (134 yards passing, 123 rushing).

Mark Weisman and the Iowa offensive line proved they weren't a fluke. The walk-on sophomore bullied his way for 116 yards and the team's lone touchdown on 26 carries. Michigan State came into the contest ranked 10th nationally against the run, allowing 86.0 YPG/3.0 YPC.

Senior Quarterback James Vandenberg continued managing the game well and got the ball to his starting receivers 12 times. Keenan Davis and Kevonte Martin-Manley each caught six balls. Davis said on Tuesday that the trio stayed after practice working on timing during the bye week and it showed. They kept the defense honest.

We could say that Iowa improving under Ferentz is surprising. It's just not. It's how the program is built.

The aberrations are 2002 and 2009. During the former, Iowa was loaded and previously had piles of sand kicked in its face. Clutch plays and talent told the story of the latter.

Other solid seasons under Ferentz result from player improvement and the fine tuning of details (execution). These both occur during development:

-'03 team loses two of first three Big Ten games before finishing season with five wins in six games including a 37-17 embarrassment of Florida in the Outback Bowl.

-'04 team starts 2-2 after a 47-7 beat-down at Arizona State and two touchdown loss at Michigan. The Hawkeyes won out, finishing things off with a last-second win against defending National Champion LSU in the Capital One Bowl.

-'08 team starts 5-4 after loss at Illinois. A four-game winning streak to finish the campaign was capped by a 31-10 whipping of South Carolina and Steve Spurrier back at the Outback.

-'10 team will remain a disappointment to some Iowa fans. When you look at the talent they advanced to the NFL, there's an argument there. However, the Hawkeyes rebounded from an egg laid in Minneapolis to end the season to beat a 10-win, Top 15 Missouri team in the Insight Bowl.

Saturday's result was surprising based on what Iowa had shown to this point in the season. The Minnesota win was nice, but it was at home against an opponent still trying to get over the hump.

This dispatching of the Spartans isn't shocking, however, because we have evidence of Ferentz and his staff turning around early-season struggles. The process started after least season ended. That's why the first person to shake the coach's hand on Saturday was Chris Doyle.

Those two seasoned coaches will celebrate with their team for 24 hours. They and the rest of the staff then will continue to help the players improve, attempting to put them in the best position to make that happen.

Nobody knows how that approach will play out. Rest assured, it's the approach. It's won Ferentz 100 games as the Hawkeye Head man.

There are things to hang your hat on if you're one to think positively. Iowa fell behind 7-0 because of a turnover. No panic.

The Hawkeyes were a miserable 6 of 19 on third downs. Iowa played without two starters in Austin Blythe and B.J. Lowery along with back-up running back Damon Bullock. No. 1 RB Mark Weisman missed the overtimes after scoring the game-tying touchdown on Saturday.

Still, Iowa won a Big Ten road game against a team that's been as good as any in the league during the last three-year stretch.

Iowa still is looking to play a clean game. Mistakes on film should motivate a group that already has shown intestinal fortitude.

It's early and might be foolish to predict a special season. But, there are signs.


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