Clutch play sparking Iowa to special season

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Maybe everything changed for Iowa when Daniel Murray's toe struck the football on that frigid November night against No. 3 Penn State.

Before Murray's kick sailed through the uprights, Iowa couldn't buy a close win. The Hawkeyes had lost 11 of their previous 13 games decided by five points or fewer, including four contests during the 2008 season. The sour streak stretched all the way back to the 2005 Capital One Bowl, the final game of a magical three-year run for Kirk Ferentz's team.

But since the Penn State upset on Nov. 8, Iowa has been fail-safe in tight games. The Hawkeyes have won four straight games decided by five points or fewer, including Saturday night's 30-28 triumph against Michigan.

Suddenly, clutch is spelled I-O-W-A.

"We know we can do it," Murray said. "That's the main thing, is believing in yourself. Until you can get that elusive first one, it's harder to believe in yourself. For a while, we knew we'd get close and I don't know if people thought we'd screw it up somehow, but we're finally getting to the point where we can actually be comfortable in those tight situations."

The clutch play has sparked Iowa to its first 6-0 start since 1985. The Hawkeyes own a 10-game win streak, the second longest in the country and the team's longest in Ferentz's 11-year tenure.

Iowa should be sniffing the top 10 on Sunday, and as the Big Ten's only unbeaten team, there are lofty goals on the table. Things don't get much easier with upcoming trips to rival Wisconsin and surging Michigan State, but the Hawkeyes are starting to believe.

"It's just guys growing up, playing in the games they didn't win, being sick of that," quarterback Ricky Stanzi said. "You've been there before and you don't want to lose the close ones. There's nothing fun about it. There's no such thing as a moral victory when you lose a close game."

The feeling comes from a formula for success rooted in solid fundamental play, excellent special teams, opportunistic defense, just enough offense and tremendous mental toughness.

Iowa needed two blocked field goals to survive a scare in the season opener against Northern Iowa. It needed dominant play from the defensive line to rally past Penn State in Happy Valley. It needed some late-game poise to avoid disaster against Arkansas State, and it needed all those qualities to beat Michigan.

The Hawkeyes forced five turnovers, executed extremely well on special teams, hit on big pass plays when they needed them and received another resilient performance from their Jekyll-and-Hyde quarterback.

"You expect every game to be close," Stanzi said. "You don't expect to blow out any team. ... When you have that mindset, you don't let anything, thinking it's going to be a blowout, slip into your head. When you're not thinking that way, it helps you fight harder in those close games."

After the game, Ferentz and his coaches joked that the team might set a record for onside kick returns this season. But he knows that good teams find ways to win tight contests.

Asked if this year's team reminded him of others that had stepped up in the clutch, Ferentz replied, "In 2004, we were masters of the close game because we weren't fast enough to pull away from anybody. ... Some years are like that, some games are like that."

This appears to be one of those years for Iowa.

It didn't start that way, the Hawkeyes endured a rough preseason. They lost running back Jewel Hampton, the projected successor to Doak Walker Award winner Shonn Greene, to a season-ending knee injury. Then star left tackle Bryan Bulaga had to be hospitalized with a thyroid condition. Then tight end Tony Moeaki suffered yet another injury.

But things seem to be falling into place. Moeaki caught two long touchdowns against Michigan after missing three games with an ankle injury and barely practicing last week. Bulaga played his second straight game and anchored the line.

There are bigger challenges ahead, especially on the road, but the Hawkeyes have earned the right to dream a little.

"Whenever you get off to this good of a start, you start to think what this might turn into," running back Adam Robinson said. "We can't get ahead of ourselves, but it's always in the back of your mind, what's going to happen next?

"There's really that special feeling."