IOWA CITY, Iowa _ Oh what a relief it is. No Alka-Selzter needed.
After eight Big Ten losses in a row and four consecutive overall, Iowa football players danced with their fans on the Kinnick Stadium turf after a thrilling 10-6 upset of No. 18 Illinois on Saturday.
Head coach Kirk Ferentz choked up on the sideline and smiles plastered the post-game interview room. They came courtesy of joy, but there also was a huge sense of a gigantic monkey, maybe a gorilla, being lifted off the Hawkeyes' backs.
Iowa (3-4 overall, 1-3 conference) no way is out of the woods. Players and coaches still are looking forward to the postseason. But not many fans or media (present company included) picked the Hawkeyes to win on Saturday. Luckily for them, they believed this was possible even when the losses were mounting.
"We had faith. This team believes," Iowa center Rafael Eubanks said. "We're buying into everything. We know that our hard work is going to pay off. We knew that sometime down the road that it was going to finally go our way. Hopefully we'll just keep our foot on the gas right now."
Even last week at Penn State in a humiliating 27-7 loss, the Iowa players still stuck together. Reporters tried to bate several Hawkeye defenders into criticizing a struggling offense. Sorry. Not this year. Not this team.
From week to week, as tiring as it sometimes was to hear, the players and coaches talked about going back to work and getting better. Some fans and media members refused to buy into youth and injuries being an excuse.
A commentator on the Big Ten Network said Iowa wouldn't win another game until playing Minnesota in the league finale.
"If anything, it makes you play with more of a chip on your shoulder," linebacker A.J. Edds said of the negative talk. "We already did with injuries and guys going down. But to hear people saying that the season is lost, that there's nothing we can do, that you just have to salvage a few wins, it does kind of make you play with a little more something to prove to yourself and your teammates that you can get it done."
Some of the players admitted to hearing the cutting comments by fans and media the last few weeks, while others said they don't pay attention. From talking to these guys on Saturday, you can bet they heard some of it, either first or second hand.
"We weren't playing good ball," Eubanks said. "That's what the fans were saying. We couldn't pay attention to that. We couldn't get worried about what other people were thinking. People were talking about a quarterback change, changes on the offensive line, all this kind of stuff."
Said defensive tackle Mitch King: "People on the outside don't see the positives that we have on the inside. They just see the outcome and the score of every game. We knew there were positives in every loss that we had. We knew that we were growing as a team. We knew it was eventually going to come. We had a great week of practice on both sides of the ball. We weren't shocked that we won."
I was worried about how this season would play out before it began. Inexperienced parts in key positions – quarterback, offensive line, receiver, kicker, punter – coupled with a tough early season schedule could spell trouble. Injuries occurred, adding to the obstacles. It felt like confidence could be an issue if the losses mounted, and it looked like things might be cracking during last week's post-game chat in Happy Valley.
"You saw that with our demeanors after the Penn State game last week," Eubanks said. "Everybody was disappointed. We responded, though, this past week. We had one of our best weeks of practice and it really translated onto the field today. We gained some confidence out there."
And that's what the level-headed Hawkeye fan needed to hang onto during the skid. Ferentz and his coaches have developed players in the past and it was going to take time for the younger, more inexperienced players to grow. If it happened by the mid point of the season, Iowa owned a more favorable schedule than it had in the first six games.
"Offensively, when you've been struggling, the doubts start to set in. The blame goes onto the quarterback, which if fine. That's how it should be," Jake Christensen said. "But we never lost confidence in each other. It felt like we were the only ones that felt like we could pull this off. Our belief in each other is really starting to pay off."
Iowa also recently had experienced a tough stretch. It lost six of its last seven games last season and the final four in a row. You had to hope the returning players that went through that grew, learned from it and could pass along wisdom.
"(The seniors' job) was to keep everyone together because at the end of last year, we had some rough times," said Iowa linebacker Mike Humpal, who racked up a career-high 18 tackles against Illinois. "We had already been through something like we had the last four weeks, and we knew we had to stay together. Things weren't going to get easier. We had to make them happen."
Basically, what Humpal was saying in a diplomatic way was that a division within the team last season made matters worse.
Iowa looked very prepared to defend the Illini's spread option. Running back Rashard Mendenhall, a Doak Walker candidate, ran for 67 yards on Saturday, his second lowest total of the season. Illinois starting quarterback Juice Williams was pulled in the fourth period because of ineffective play.
"We had the best week of practice we've had so far," Edds said. "It really showed up today on the field. We know we have a chance every game going into it. There's no game we can't win. We had a pretty good plan for their offense, what they've been doing, it showed up pretty well."
One of the key moments that showed the camaraderie on this team occurred in Saturday's post-game press conference. Christensen and Eubanks both took blame for a bad quarterback-center exchange that led to a fumble recovery for Illinois in the fourth quarter with Iowa going in for a potential score.
"We go out and play for each other and we have faith in the guy next to us," King said. "We play for our coaches and our teammates because that's going to stick by you no matter what."
It also was nice to see the coaches show more faith in their players, especially on offense. While they decided to punt on a fourth and short early against Penn State at the Nittany Lions' 37, they went for it twice early in Saturday's game. Though Iowa didn't score in the first quarter, it held the ball for over 10 minutes, keeping Illinois' potent offense off the field and giving its defense needed rest.
Those are the types of things for which Iowa has been waiting. They've waited for the offense to do enough to win and the defense to shut down the opponent concurrently. It has been a fragile formula in the past, but when it has worked, it's beautiful.
Still, there were plenty of mistakes on Saturday. Illinois had a long touchdown called back and almost drove the length of the field for the potential winning score before an interception near the end zone. But Iowa got breaks and made breaks on Saturday, something that's escaped them a lot during the last few years.
"We're hardly a finished product," Ferentz said. "We moved the ball today. The next step is hopefully score some points. But it was a very positive step. I think our guys can feel good about things."
The fans should be feeling better as well. The season that many of you thought was a lost cause again has life. And although the Hawkeyes wish some of you would be a little less fickle, they do appreciate your support.
"I don't think there's another 2-4 team in the nation that's going to have fans do that for us; to come out and pack the stadium and cheer for us for 60 minutes," King said. "It's like having a 12-th man on both sides of the ball. That's huge."