Leave it to Iowa and Coach Kirk Ferentz to rise from the depths of fan despair. The Head Hawkeye sure can rally a troop.
Iowa mounted an improbable comeback against the unbeaten Panthers, overcoming a 10-point halftime deficit to win 24-20 here at Heinz Field. Pitt, led by bruising running back James Conner, gashed the Hawkeyes for 132 yards on the ground before the intermission. That doubled what the visitors had been allowing per game.
"The thing I'm most proud of the team is the resiliency they showed today. They could have packed it in. We just got hammered in that first half," Ferentz said.
Social media and message boards were humming after the opening 30 minutes coming off a second-half collapse against the Cyclones. It fueled the Fire Ferentz fanatics.
It was a tough week in Hawkeye Nation. The media peppered Ferentz Tuesday with questions regarding his lackluster offensive showing through three games. His call-in show a night later brought more criticism. It all came on top of columns, podcasts, talk radio and the aforementioned social media/message board critics calling for wholesale changes in the program.
"I know the sky was falling a week ago, or the last three weeks. I know nobody wants to hear this but it really gets down to execution. It gets down to little things. Playing good football is hard," Ferentz said.
There's not doubt that Iowa executed more efficiently. The Hawkeyes also won the turnover battle and were much cleaner than Pitt in only committing two penalties to the Panthers' eight.
That doesn't tell the whole story, however. Some of the things the fans and media had been wondering about showed up here Saturday. Iowa threw the ball deep, organized the running backs, played the back-up quarterback (even though it occurred due to injury), rotated defenders and just looked more aggressive than it did through three weeks. It dictated instead of being dictated to.
On the game's opening drive, the Hawkeyes presented a different look to Pitt. Jordan Canzeri started at running back behind a three tight-end set. Even though the series ended on a tremendous interception by Lafayette Pitts, it came on a bomb from starting quarterback Jake Rudock to Damond Powell. Despite the giveaway, it was welcome relief to the horizontal passing game we've become accustomed to seeing from coordinator Greg Davis.
Unfortunately for Iowa, the Panthers were pulverizing its defense. The visitors offense ran five total plays in the second quarter.
"It's frustrating and we're not really used to that because it hasn't happened to us a lot, people just running it down our throat. We couldn't stop it," said Hawkeye Strong Safety Johnny Lowdermilk, who paced his team with 11 tackles. "The second half we were more aggressive. We played smarter and we got the job done."
According to player accounts, the halftime locker room scene lacked panic. Instead, determination and a refusal to go down without a fight prevailed.
"We weren't going to pack it in. We were going to play our style of football. We were going to get the running game going and go on from there," Iowa Left Tackle Brandon Scherff said.
The players exuded the belief, attitude and approach. The coaches gave them a chance, something they hadn't done enough of through three weeks.
Pitt took the opening kickoff and drove to the Hawkeye 36 before stalling and turning the ball over on downs. Four plays later, C.J. Beathard, who replaced an injured Rudock late in the first half, hit Powell for a 62-yard completion. Three plays after that one-handed circus catch, running back Mark Weisman ran into the end zone from 10 yards out. Iowa trailed by three.
Football success centers around carrying out the plan, executing if you will. It's also about attacking the opposition and utilizing your playmakers.
It's silly to think Powell only learned how to outrun a defensive back in practice this week. He's been a bullet stuck in the holster for too long.
Meanwhile, Iowa substituted freely on defense. As the game wore on, players were fresh and flowed to the football against a tired Pitt offense on an unseasonably warm day in Western Pennsylvania.
"It was the plan going in," Ferentz said of going with a deep group of defensemen. " I don't know how many plays we were out there in the first half. It seemed like 70. That was not planned but the rotation was just to keep guys fresher."
Like Powell, Jaleel Johnson, Faith Ekakitie, Travis Perry, Sean Draper, etc., probably could have helped before Saturday. Perhaps Iowa State doesn't overcome an 11-point halftime hole last week if the Hawkeye defenders had more in the tank.
Iowa's running game fell short of dominating but found a rhythm for the first time this season. Maybe, not coincidently, it occurred because there was a plan. Canzeri and Weisman shared first and second downs as a thunder-and-lightening attack with Damon Bullock inserted on third downs. Roles seemed defined, which is easier on players.
Ferentz has forgotten more about football than most of us will ever know. That doesn't mean the untrained eye can't spot deficiencies.
No doubt, the Hawkeyes better executed their game plan Saturday. But the coaches provided a blue print designed to make it easier for them to succeed.
"It was a great comeback, a great win for us. It's a resilient team, this team. The best Iowa teams are and we strive to be a good team. We're on the right track. We're not there yet, but we're on the right track; made improvements this week, definitely; enjoy this one for 24 hours and then on to the next one," Weisman said.
It's the approach that's served Ferentz well for the last 15 years. It's enabled he and his program to rise up when least expected. Saturday, the coach and his staff trusted in their players and built confidence. It's what was needed.