The 'Cats accepted the opening kickoff and, on their first play, ran an option left that ended with Venric Mark gaining four off a pitch from Kain Colter. Now Colter dropped and rolled right and missed Rashad Lawrence on a short out and then, on third down, he dropped again, avoided an Iowa blitz and scrambled for 18. "I thought he made some really good decisions today," Pat Fitzgerald would say after his team's 11-point win over the Hawkeyes. "There were some things that were either pushed up into his face or covered. Instead of forcing the ball today, I thought he made some really good decisions and saw some green grass and was able to take advantage of it."
Three plays later, on another third down, he did that again and picked up 20, and here the 'Cats went to work pounding at the Hawkeye 31. First Colter gained a yard and then, on a burst up the middle, Mike Trumpy gained 17. Now Mark gained six over the left side and three up the middle and finally, on third-and-one from the five, Colter stuck the ball in Mark's belly, made his zone read, withdrew it and skittered left into the end zone. "When you're able to read somebody, it allows an extra blocker," Colter would say of that final play, which the 'Cats effectively used throughout this homecoming Saturday. "We don't have to block that guy. Technically the quarterback is going to block him with his decision. That helps us out a lot."
"It's just chemistry. We know each other," said Mark when asked how that zone-read play works. "And I try, (running backs) Coach (Matt) MacPherson always teaches us don't clamp down on the ball. You have to treat it like you would treat a lady. Nice, calm. So once I make my pocket and he puts it in there, once he lets it go, then I know I have to hold it. So I don't automatically just run and try to grab it. I think that's what makes it work so well."
The 'Cat offense had been out of sorts all through October as it rotated quarterbacks and rarely found a rhythm. But here, on its opening drive on the last Saturday of the month, it effectively reclaimed itself and announced just how it would go after the Hawkeyes: on the ground and with Colter as choreographer. Trevor Siemian, in fact, would take just three snaps this afternoon and, at game's end, Colter would have 166 net rushing yards, Mark would have 162 more (to push him over 1,000 on the season) and the 'Cats would have 349 to just 84 through the air (and 47 of those came on a touchdown pass Colter threw to Christian Jones). "As we went back and evaluated some of the things we were doing very well and some of the things we were struggling with a little bit, we felt if we could control the line of scrimmage today, we'd give ourselves an opportunity to win the game," Fitzgerald later said of that approach.
"Some of the things we have done well have had Kain in there at quarterback, so we made the decision to focus on that...I've got great confidence in both of our quarterbacks. I think we can win with both, I believe that both young men helped us get to where we're at today. But right now, especially after today, it just seems that Kain's playing at such a high level that it gives us a great feeling going into the bye (week) and moving forward for the rest of the year."
Will the approach be the same the rest of the year?
"I don't know. The answer is we're going to do everything we can to win. That's the answer to the question, but I'm not going to tell (Michigan coach) Brady (Hoke, whose Woverines the 'Cats play next) anything. I might play Zack Oliver against Michigan, I don't know. I don't know. The game plan will dictate what we do. But as far as what we're going to do, I'm going to tell you nothing and smile."
Fitzgerald, it should be noted, was smiling as he said that.
Iowa started its opening drive by running punishing-fullback Mark Weisman, who gained seven and three on his first two carries. Three plays later they ran him again and linebacker David Nwabuisi stopped him after a yard, and then it was Nwabuisi and fellow-linebacker Damien Proby stopping him after two. The Hawkeyes would end this drive with a field goal, but already another pattern of this game had been established: the 'Cat defensive line was in control of The Pit, Iowa would often have to go to the air and the 'Cat linebackers were positioned for a stellar afternoon.
Nwabuisi, in fact, would end with 18 tackles and Proby with a dozen, and Weisman (21 yards on nine carries) would leave the game for good late in the first half after he was stopped by Proby and re-injured the ankle he had twisted two weeks earlier. That left the Hawkeyes to depend on Damon Bullock, who did net 107 yards on his 22 carries, and the arm of James Vandenberg, who was sacked three times and constantly harassed even as he completed 24-of-38 for 214 yards. "He's a great back," defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt later said of Weisman. "So we just came out with the mentality that we were going to need a couple guys to wrap him up and bring him down. I think for the most part we were able to do that."
"As a player you've got to think that every game's going to be a big game for you and for the defense in general," Nwabuisi said of his monster day. "Going into the game, we as a defense felt that we were going to dominate the line of scrimmage and there's going to be a lot of plays to be made. I talked to the linebackers before the game, I said we're going to set the tone for this game. We've just got to be able to make plays. The D linemen were doing their job keeping us clean, so a lot of stuff came my way today and I was able to make the play."
"David was all over the place. He's one of our senior leaders who's playing the best football of his life," Fitzgerald would say of his linebacker.
"It seemed like we were having a party in the backfield all day today. It seemed that we were on James quite a bit," he said of his line. "That's what the guys talk about. 'There's a party at the quarterback and everyone's invited.' That group, (defensive line coach) Marty Long's done a terrific job. That group's got terrific chemistry right now. The defensive line's got terrific chemistry."
The lines were the thing then on this afternoon, and so they should not go unrecognized. On the defense there were ends Quentin Williams and Tyler Scott and Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson, and at tackle there were Arnfelt and Sean McEvilly and Will Hampton and Chance Carter. Brandon Vitabile is the center for the offense and next to him at guard are Brian Mulroe and Neal Deiters and out at the tackles are Patrick Ward and Jack Konopka. "I'm excited. I'm not overly excited. We have more games to play," Mark said when asked how it felt to become the 'Cats' first 1,000-yard rusher since 2006. "But I have to give credit to the O-line. They've been playing really well. I have to give all the credit to them."
"They battled their butts off today," added Colter. "Especially with our tempo of offense, we feel our offensive line is the best-conditioned line in the nation. We're able to go fast and really tire the defense out and keep playing at a high level. They did a great job today and I feel that's where it all starts, with the offensive line. A lot of times they don't get the credit they deserve. But they really stepped up this year. They've been great."
Credit on this day should also go to running back Tyris Jones, who set up one 'Cat touchdown by blocking a Hawkeye punt early in the second half, and to safety Ibraheim Campbell, whose destruction of Hawkeye receiver Keenan Davis on a crossing pattern both prevented a reception and symbolized the ferocity with which his entire unit played. ("That hit Ibraheim put on the receiver to make him drop the ball, that made me hurt for a second," Nwabuisi would say of that play.) Still. Still. Still came the fourth quarter.
The 'Cats led by 18 as the fourth quarter opened, and now 10 straight runs by either Colter or Mark carried them from their 26 to a first down at the Hawkeye three. But here Vitabile's snap sailed over Colter's head and Iowa recovered and itself drove for a touchdown that pulled it to within 11 with 6:37 remaining. The 'Cat offense now went three-and-out, just as it had in similar situations against Penn State and Nebraska, and here again came the Iowa offense, looking to replicate the winning fourth-quarter rallies staged by both the Nittany Lions and the Huskers. "I was excited. It was an opportunity for our defense to step up and make some plays," Arnfelt later said when asked of this moment that called up bad memories for 'Cat fans.
"We talked about doing what we do. 'Let's go out and execute and do what we do.' That's the big thing," said Fitzgerald. "I hate to break it to you, but we don't look deep into all these things, the psychological aspects, 'Oh-my-gosh-it's-the-same-way-it-was-a-week-ago-what-are-we-going-to-do-now?' That's not what you do. You focus on what's working, you focus on the issues that you have, you correct them. You remind the guys to keep doing what they're doing, and to trust themselves and trust what we're asking them to do. I think when you start to overanalyze things is when you get into a problem. We're not very good when we overanalyze. We're not very good at all. That's my job as coach, to make sure we don't do that as a staff and that we don't do that with our young men. Again, I thought the guys played pretty well."
They certainly did that here, keeping Hawkeye receivers inside and in front, allowing the Hawkeyes only short completions, finally stopping the Hawkeyes on a fourth-and-three at the 24. With that the ball returned to the 'Cats with 1:44 remaining, and here the offense picked up a first down and ended the day taking a knee.
The aim, for any team, is to play relevant games in November, which is now the case with these 'Cats as they head into their bye week. "As I addressed them, and you'll hear me say it again at my press conference a couple Mondays from now, 'They forget what you do in September and October and remember what you do in November.' That's where we're at," an obviously emotional Fitzgerald would finally say on Saturday afternoon. "We talked about starting this month (October) with no excuses and we make no excuses for our play or for our coaching. We could have been better. But we've put ourselves in a position to be in the postseason, we've put ourselves in position to have a significant November, and the credit goes to our staff and most importantly our young men. They've battled. They've persevered.
"It's just amazing. When we win, it's, oh, we found a way to win. When we lose, it's like the sky's falling. It's all I read, it's all I see, it's all our kids see. We've had great fan support and they've done a great job of not listening to the negative. We've got a seven-win football team right now. I'd like everyone not to forget that. That would be great. And the credit goes to the kids."