IOWA CITY, Iowa - Iowa was ripe for the picking. Northwestern staved off an early Hawkeye flurry to tie the game in the fourth quarter on Saturday.
The home team entered action on a two-game skid having relinquished halftime leads in both contests. A sullen mood crept into Kinnick Stadium suggesting many of the fans were on the here-we-go-again train of thought.
Human nature would have allowed the Hawkeyes to be second-guessing themselves. They'd won only four of 12 games a year ago and, while improving this fall, the payoff of victory had eluded them several times when the going got tough.
"We know that we're a good team. We actually know we're a really good team," junior receiver Kevonte Martin Manley said. "It's tough playing college football. Nothing comes easy no matter how good you are. You can be the top team in the country, it's still not going to be easy week in and week out.
"Having that belief in the back of our heads that we are a good team makes us feel like we're going to pull out some of these tough games."
That's called confidence. It's easily rattled in athletics, especially at the college level where it's played by teenagers or folks in their early 20s.
Sometimes outsiders take for granted progress will be made every year with every team. It's almost expected in this day and age of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately views and vilified when it doesn't. Those critiques often arrive quickly by way of social media, talk radio and over-analysis by a plethora of talking heads and columnists.
The stakes would have been burning had the Hawkeyes fell short Saturday. That they pulled out a 17-10 overtime victory speaks a lot to their character.
"It's football and things happen," senior linebacker Christian Kirksey said. "We try to stay close as a family and don't let the bad things get to us. We try to fix problems.
"We try to stay positive. We know we have the potential to be a great team but that doesn't mean anything if you don't work to reach it."
The belief that previous results would not impact Saturday's outcome served the Hawkeyes well. They might have been doomed by doubt.
The atmosphere became tense after Mike Meyer missed on a 42-yard field goal attempt into the wind on Iowa's first drive following Northwestern evening the game at 10-10 early in the fourth. The Wildcats quickly moved the ball out to midfield and worry fully settled in at the historic venue on Melrose Avenue.
"The mood was to just finish the game," Kirksey said. "We didn't want it to get cloudy out there but it got that way. But we knew that we had to continue to fight."
Then, unlike events in their three losses, the Hawkeyes stopped the opposition's momentum and claimed it for their own. The defense forced Northwestern running back Mike Trumpy to cough up the football and true freshman cornerback Desmond King fell on the fumble. Iowa ball at the 50.
Work remained for the previously victimized Hawkeyes. They headed to overtime after the teams exchanged empty possessions to cap regulation play.
Iowa received the ball first in the extra session. It came out firing with a 14-yard pass completion from Jake Rudock to Tevaun Smith. A pair of Mark Weisman rushes totaled eight yards and moved the home team to the Wildcats' three. A false start pushed it back to a third and seven on eight.
Northwestern brought a full-house blitz and Rudock felt the heat. The sophomore hung in the pocket long enough to deliver a nice touch pass to tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz in the left corner of the end zone for a 17-10 advantage.
The Hawkeyes stayed aggressive on defense, sacking elusive quarterback Kain Colter for a one-yard loss on first down. A run of three and an incomplete pass set up a fourth and eight from the 23. Colter scrambled loose from a few Iowa players before Louis Trinca-Pasat sacked him to end the game.
While the fans remained in the stands, the Iowa players and coaches wildly celebrated like they hadn't won a conference contest in this venue in forever. It just may have seemed that way since the last one came in the 2012 season-opener against Minnesota.
The road traveled by the Hawkeyes this season has contained bumps and more likely remain ahead. It's been about staying on the road and not ending up in the ditch like last season.
"I just think every week guys come to work with an improvement-driven state of mind," senior linebacker James Morris said. "Older guys have been preaching to the younger guys and to each other, and it's coming from the coaches, too, that if this team is going to be good it has to improve every week. We're fighting and we're trying.
"(Saturday) wasn't our best game but we did what we had to do to win the game and now we have another week to get better."
Staying on the path of development is critical with a powerful Wisconsin team coming to Kinnick next week.
"You have to stay level-headed," Martin-Manley said. "You have to come with the same focus in practice this week as we did last week trying to reverse things. We have to keep getting better."
Iowa reached the halfway point of the conference schedule at 2-2 with a 5-3 record overall. People outside of the program have lived and died with each win and loss, trying to figure out where this team would end up. The Hawkeyes have survived focusing on the season week to week.
"The critique-o-meter is there and that comes with the territory," Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. "It shows just how fine a line it is between winning and losing. If there is any bad that comes out of winning, you just have to stay grounded and stay focused on what's going to help you win.
"I don't think (Saturday) will be tough to illustrate that point. This thing was hard all the way."
All remaining games stand a good chance to be that way. This Iowa team appears hungry enough to stay on the road even through more bumps.