WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Iowa ran to the locker room clinging to a 14-7 lead here Saturday. Lowly Purdue stood toe-to-toe with the Hawkeyes, who entered the game favored to win by more than two touchdowns.
The environment was ripe for an upset. The underdogs built confidence in the first 30 minutes. The few fans that did show up at Ross-Ade Stadium were involved.
Iowa stunk in the second half of games this fall. It was especially bad in the third quarter. The unthinkable was unfolding for the Hawkeyes.
Then, a team susceptible to self-inflicted wounds, shot out of the locker room with fire in its eyes. The grinders ground out a 38-14 win by physically pounding the Boilermakers on both sides of the ball.
"To me, it's about where your mind is at and it's all about execution," Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. "It's not like we did any second-half drills or took any Kool-Aide pills in the locker room. It's just a matter of going out and playing better."
There may not have been any exercises or energy tabs but you got a sense talking to the Hawkeye players after the game that they received some encouragement from their head coach and team leaders.
"Coming into halftime, we didn't feel like we played our best," Senior Linebacker James Morris said. "We made some poor decisions, some mistakes on both sides of the ball. Coach let us know that and that was communicated well throughout the team from the older guys, everybody across the board.
"We were pretty focused coming out in the second half trying to change that, correct those mistakes and just keep playing hard. I thought we played hard we were just doing some dumb stuff. We did a good job of remedying that."
This was the point of last season when Iowa folded. Its six-game skid to close the campaign included a November home setback to Purdue, who had come to Kinnick Stadium losers of five in a row.
Ferentz and the players he's entrusted to lead them this fall responded Saturday. Instead of letting previous difficult losses in 2013 beat them again, they pushed forward.
This isn't a star-studded Hawkeye team. It's the more common variety we find in Iowa City, one that needs many contributions from a lot of people.
"We took a step in the right direction (Saturday)," Senior Offensive Tackle Brett Van Sloten said. "We're not where we want to be. There's still work to be done.
"But it's a step in the right direction as a program."
Comments like the ones from Morris in Van Sloten give us insight into the reason Iowa is positioned to control its own destiny in terms of having good season. Maximum effort is part of the formula that help Ferentz's mutts succeed. Without it, they likely will lose to Michigan and Nebraska later this month. With it and a lot of guys rowing the boat, they can win those contests.
"It really is (a team game)," Van Sloten said. "There's 11 guys on the field. Even the guys that didn't make the trip, they get us ready throughout the week. Hats off to them.
"Everybody knows their role within the team and that's all you can ask of anyone."
In conjunction with that, Ferentz and his staff know their team. Saturday's methodical game plan illustrated as much.
Ferentz played conservatively on Saturday (I know. Big surprise). With time to put points on the board in the closing minutes of the first half, he, for better or worse, decided to sit on the ball.
Ferentz chose the right course. An inexperienced and ineffective Boilermaker offense posed little threat against his solid defense. It was about playing the hand dealt.
Patience paid off. Eventually, the Hawkeyes' strengths, the offensive line and defense, wore down Purdue.
A slumping Iowa rushing attack put up 318 yards on 52 attempts, which worked out to 6.1 per carry. Meanwhile, the Hawkeyes held the home team to 53 yards on 28 carries or 1.9 a try.
Iowa improved to 6-4 and became bowl eligible a year after winning four games. It evened its conference mark at 3-3 following a 2012 that saw two Big Ten victories. A lot of Hawkeye fans would have taken this standing given the opportunity in the preseason.
"We talk big picture very briefly on Sundays," Ferentz said. "The big picture (coming into Purdue) is that we had three games and we felt like we'd have a chance to win all three if we played better. We have to play our best football."
The Iowa coaches and players, for the most part, are getting the most out of the talent on the team. It's about effort and unity, two things that proved crucial in Saturday's victory.