NOAH TRISTER,AP Sports Writer
EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Less than a month ago, Iowa was coming off a startling loss to Central Michigan. The Hawkeyes didn’t look like a championship team in the MAC, much less the Big Ten.
Then the conference season started, and the turnaround was immediate. After Saturday’s victory at Michigan State, Iowa is tied with Michigan atop the Legends Division heading into next weekend’s big home game against Penn State.
“It’s awesome, obviously. It’s cool being at the top,” tight end Jake Duzey said. “But we’ve still got six games left and we’re only two games in so we’ve got to keep pushing and keep working. This will keep our momentum going.”
The Hawkeyes are already well aware how quickly momentum can change. They barely beat Northern Illinois in the season opener and lost 32-31 to Central Michigan in regulation Sept. 22 — after leading by eight with a minute to go.
After beating Minnesota 31-13, Iowa gutted out a win at Spartan Stadium, scoring a tying touchdown in the final minute and then prevailing 19-16 in double overtime. The Hawkeyes (4-2, 2-0 Big Ten) are one of four teams in the Big Ten without a conference loss, but two of them — Ohio State and Penn State — are ineligible for the league title.
“We had some tough circumstances but the guys hung in there and kept working, and I thought we improved during the course of the game in a lot of areas,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said after Saturday’s win. “We’re growing as a football team right now based on the last two weeks.”
Mark Weisman ran for 116 yards and the tying touchdown Saturday before hurting his right ankle. He’s been instrumental in Iowa’s improvement, averaging 6.3 yards per carry with eight rushing TDs on the season.
He had help Saturday. With the Hawkeyes facing second-and-26 from their own 16 late in the fourth quarter, James Vandenberg found Keenan Davis single covered along the right sideline for a 35-yard gain.
“I don’t care if they’re home or away, the close ones are the ones that really separate the good football teams,” Vandenberg said. “I thought we executed very well down the stretch. We made the plays when we had to and we gave ourselves a chance.”
Weisman’s 37-yard run on third-and-6 gave Iowa the ball at the Michigan State 8 and set up the tying TD, which also came on third down.
The teams traded field goals in the first overtime, then Iowa’s Mike Meyer made one from 42 yards in the second to give the Hawkeyes their first lead of the game. Iowa sealed the win when Greg Castillo intercepted Andrew Maxwell’s deflected pass.
“We just kept fighting out there, giving punches, keep going and just got it done at the end,” Weisman said. “Defense is unbelievable out there. They’re the only reason we were in the game at all. We give them more credit than anyone out there.”
Iowa hosts Penn State next weekend, then faces Northwestern, Indiana and Purdue. If the Hawkeyes can come through that stretch and stay in a muddled Big Ten race, they could play a couple pretty meaningful games at Michigan and at home against Nebraska in the final two weeks of the regular season.
Last month, that scenario would have seemed far-fetched, to say the least.
“Not a lot of people have confidence in us on the outside but among us 100 guys we know that we can do some pretty special things and we’re going to keep fighting,” wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley said. “I don’t know what’s going on with the standings and what’s going on in the Big Ten right now and I really can’t. When I look at it, you’ve got to take it one game at a time and that’s what we did (Saturday). We’re going to keep fighting and we can’t get too happy with the win. We want to enjoy this and move on next week.”
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