BLOOMINGTON, Ind. - Finally.
It turned out to be a story of what Iowa didn't do as much as it was what it did. The Hawkeyes didn't turn the ball over, didn't allow a punt to be blocked, didn't miss a field goal and didn't find other ways to take themselves out of the game. After three losses in a row by a total of nine points, they did the little things.
Let's not fool ourselves. Indiana is a bad football team right now. The Hawkeyes aren't heading home with a win against the Joe Montana 49ers. But entering next week's game with Wisconsin off of a victory beats the heck out of the alternative.
A loss against Indiana could have been devastating. The Hawkeyes would have needed to win four of their last five to lock up a bowl bid.
None of the Iowa players would call Saturday's game one it had to have. With almost half the schedule left, that would have meant saying the season would have been done had they left Bloomington on the wrong side of things.
In a league where almost every game, ever week is nip and tuck, Saturday was a must-win for Iowa. Yes, the makeup of this team would have allowed it to rebound next week against Wisconsin. But another close loss could have knocked out a big chunk of confidence.
"We needed this win as much as you could need a win," Iowa Linebacker A.J. Edds said. "Going 0-3 in the conference and 3-4 (overall) wouldn't have been insurmountable, but it would have been hard."
Iowa really shook off the things that have hampered it since the 3-0 start to the season. And it took some time to do that.
A Brent Greenwood interception set up the Iowa offense at the Hoosier 11. Hawkeye quarterback Ricky Stanzi almost had two passes intercepted before the visitors settled for a field goal. Stanzi came into the afternoon with five turnovers in his last two games, but he caught a break and then took advantage of it.
"I definitely wasn't as focused as I was in the second half, that's for sure," said Stanzi, who threw two touchdown passes in winning his first Big Ten game. "I felt like I was trying to do too much in the first half."
Iowa jumped out to a 17-3 lead before the Hoosiers drove down the field for a touchdown right before halftime. It felt eerily similar to the Northwestern game a few weeks ago where the Wildcats fought back for a 22-17 win.
The Hawkeyes have floundered coming out of intermission this season. That didn't happen on Saturday.
Instead of losing the momentum from the way the first half ended, the defense stopped Indiana in three plays before driving 60 yards for a touchdown. The Hoosiers again went three and out followed by a 58-yard touchdown drive by Indiana. Iowa led 31-9 and the game was over.
"We've been in that position before and kind of let one slide away," Stanzi said. "This week, we did a good job of finishing, coming out and attacking with a whole different attitude."
Even kicker Daniel Murray got into the act. After Iowa's first, second-half score. He made a touchdown saving tackle on the ensuing kickoff.
"It was a way for us to keep the momentum," Murray said. "If they get that touchdown, the momentum swings big time on a kickoff. That was big and then the defense went out and stopped them. That was big for momentum."
Iowa benefited from an injury to Hoosier quarterback Kellen Lewis. He looked to be reinventing the nightmares he's given the Hawkeyes the last two years with the drive before halftime. But even with Lewis, the visitors looked too determined and focused in Saturday.
There's just a different feel with this Hawkeye team that's maybe been missing the last few years. Although the players appeared pleased on Saturday, they weren't giddy. And they also seemed to be business like as they were even in losing the last three. It brought back memories of past Iowa teams that have experienced success.
"The thing is that we're with each other. We're pretty close," Iowa Defensive Tackle Matt Kroul said. "We realize that we were right on the edge the last three games. We knew we were close. We just needed a game like this to kind of spring us forward."
This team has rolled forward through a quarterback controversy and risen up from three tough losses to win for only the second time on the road in its last 12. Its changed starters at middle linebacker, left guard, kicker and, of course, quarterback since the August opener.
That shows mental toughness. Perhaps losing three close games builds character instead of tearing the team apart.
"We expect the rest of the games to be close," Iowa Guard Julian Vandervelde said. "Having lost those close games, we have a little bit more drive, a little bit more push. We don't want that again. We don't want to experience that again. We don't want our fans to have to go through that. It gives a little extra kick in the butt, there."
Maybe something special comes now after this win. Maybe this is one of those Iowa teams that gets better and peaks in late October and November.
"If we play physical and play with energy ever game, it's up to us," Kroul said. "When you do those two things, you're going to get some breaks and you're going to win some games."
They proved that on Saturday. The alternative was not an option.