Tight games test Iowa's mental toughness

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Derrell Johnson-Koulianos sensed something wasn't right as Iowa went through its final preparations before Saturday's game against Indiana.

The Hawkeyes' star wide receiver felt sluggish, and he wasn't the only one.

"I was still tired," Johnson-Koulianos said. "I’m like, ‘I’ve got to wake up here. I’ve got to focus and concentrate a little more.’ I felt our whole team, guys were just a step slow or a step off or something. And [Indiana] got up on us and we’re like, ‘Oh, crap. All right guys, it’s time to wake up and let’s go.'"

Iowa snapped out of it with a dominant fourth quarter, scoring 28 unanswered points to turn out the lights on Indiana and maintain its perfect record. But no one wearing black and gold would characterize the win as easy, which has been the case week after week this fall.

There's not a team in college football that has exhibited greater mental toughness this season than Iowa. And there are few teams that have been in as many nail-biters as the Hawkeyes, who have rallied in eight of their nine wins.

With so many down-to-the-wire games and so much fourth-quarter drama, does mental fatigue ever become a concern?

"Mentally, that's what we've prepared for," Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "It's not easy, I can assure you. But that's just the way it is, so we've got to do the best with what we have and not think too much about how tough it is."

Iowa is, by nature, a "slow-start team," as Johnson-Koulianos put it after the Indiana win. But the Hawkeyes seemed unusually out of sorts on Saturday.

They committed four first-half penalties (Iowa leads the Big Ten in fewest penalties this season) and two special-teams blunders, a Ryan Donahue shanked punt and a fumbled return by Amari Speivey. Keep in mind, the Hawkeyes were coming off their third night game this season, an extremely physical contest against Michigan State that wasn't decided until the final play.

"We’ve played a handful of night games, and it’s getting late in the season, and we’re a little banged up," Johnson-Koulianos said. "So there’s a lot of things that are playing a role. ... But if we figure out how to come out of the gate fast, we’re going to be an amazing team. Right now, we’re 9-0, basically because of the second half.

"Thank God for second halves."

Linebacker A.J. Edds said the team's ability to "flush" wins and refocus for the next week has played a major role in the perfect season.

“We’ve played 60 minutes last week [at Michigan State]," he said. "It took 60 this week. We’ve got a resilient group of guys."

At Iowa, mental toughness isn't a choice. It's mandatory.

As Ferentz reiterated Tuesday, Iowa lacks the recruiting advantages of national powerhouse programs, which can cast a net around their state and bring in enough talent. Ferentz and his assistants can't afford to be sticklers for size, but they always look for players "motivated to do the most with what they have."

This season, the motivation hasn't wavered.

"If you're in a competitive conference, which the Big Ten is, you better have that mindset, or you better have a great team," Ferentz said. "There have been some teams that just steamroll their way through every game.

"That must be nice to be involved in one of those."