IOWA CITY, Iowa - Everybody in the Iowa locker room was pointing fingers at each other. Head Coach Kirk Ferentz said it was the players. They tossed it back at him and their teammates.
It's not what you think. Things are pretty good in Hawkeye Nation. There's no back stabbing or folks being thrown under the bus.
Nobody wants to take credit. Ferentz praises the players, who then compliment the guys around them and their coaches. They're all correct.
You don't get to 7-4 after Saturday's 24-21 win against Michigan here at Kinnick Stadium from a 4-8 disaster on 2012 without a lot of guys chipping in. Yes, against the Wolverines, but the journey to this point started last November.
It's cliche. We hear repeatedly from the sports world that the struggle started in the off-season. It's relative.
If you watched Iowa last fall, you know the Hawkeyes are preaching the truth. Hard work and focus explains why many of the same players that faltered last year can double their win total with a victory at Nebraska on Friday.
With the exception of true freshman cornerback Desmond King, these guys are the same ones getting sand kicked in their faces in '12. They did something about it.
"This didn't just come to us," defensive tackle Carl Davis said. "We've been working since November. When everybody was at bowl games, we were in there pushing sleds, lifting weights, looking at film."
Much of Saturday's credit for a superb defensive effort went to the three senior linebackers flying all over the field. They deserved the praise for helping the Hawkeyes hold Michigan scoreless in the second half and to 158 total yards on the day.
"Those guys are amazing," Davis said.
The trio at the second level are improved from last year. The line in front of them maybe more so. Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat push people around from their tackle spots while ends Drew Ott and Mike Hardy more often than not contained the edge.
Wolverines Quarterback Devin Gardner gashed Iowa for 314 passing yards during last year's 42-17 win in Ann Arbor. The Hawkeyes rarely touched him in that game. Saturday, they made him uncomfortable.
The improved line play keeps blockers off the athletic linebackers allowing them to make plays. The defensive backs, much maligned year ago with now departed All-Big Ten performer Micah Hyde, stands a chance not having to stay in coverage for extended periods of time.
"It's the whole defense," Davis said. "They can be running something to the outside and the DB comes up and makes the tackle. Everybody had to do their job to make that happen.
"We all play well together."
The Hawkeye offense moved the ball well for most of the day but mistakes and a failure to finish drives kept it from scoring more. Then, it cut Michigan's lead to 21-14 on the first drive of the second half when Jake Rudock tossed the ball over the middle to Tevaun Smith, who made a tough catch and sprinted into the end zone from 55 yards out. A dead Kinnick came to life.
"We had to keep working," Rudock said. "The game wasn't won or lost. We had to stay after it and understand that it wasn't a perfect game by any means. I threw three picks. Nobody wants that. But we hung in there and everybody did a good job of pulling together for the win."
Iowa tied it up on a nine-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter and Mike Meyer knocked through a 34-yard field goal for a 24-21 lead with 6:02 left in the fourth quarter.
The Wolverines took the ensuing kickoff and moved into Iowa territory. Gardner scrambled to the left and picked up eight yards to the 31. That's where Hawkeye linebacker Anthony Hitchens stripped him of the ball and recovered the fumble.
Michigan retained three time outs but it didn't matter. Iowa earned two first downs and never gave the visitors the ball back. The Hawkeyes had reached seven wins. something few predicted before the season.
"We've been taking it a step at a time, a week at a time," Ferentz said. "It all started right after the season when we met. We figured we'd get plenty of suggestions, plenty of critiques from the outside, so we didn't spend too much time on that. But our attitude is we're going to go back to work and try to do what we do, do it better, do it with more quality, and just see if we couldn't improve.
"It's one thing to walk into a meeting and talk about what we're supposed to do, but to win and to be a good team, it's all about the players taking and going with it. And this team has had ownership. They've been really committed. They've worked hard. That's probably the reason I'm happiest that we won today."
Rudock said the seniors and other players approached Ferentz last November with their expectations for this season.
"We didn't want that feeling again," Rudock said. "He understood what we wanted. He wants to win, too."
The quarterback made sure to credit the head coach who was praising the players.
"He's done a great job getting the staff around us, really helping us improve," Rudock said. "He's the head coach. He's the guy running everything. He has a great relationship with all of us and I think that he's put us in great position to go out each day and hopefully get a win."
Rudock and Davis talked about the importance of every off-season repetition, weight lifting session and each film study. Nobody cut corners. It showed on Saturday as it had this fall.
"We were down early and we didn't know how it was going to play out," Davis said. "We just kept fighting and we got that last rep. We stuck it out."