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Fans return en force to live in moment with Hawkeyes at Kinnick

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- A parade of buses rolled toward Kinnick Stadium on Saturday as the Iowa football players on board glanced through their windows at "hordes of people," receiver Matt VandeBerg said. Right away, the Hawkeyes knew that this night would be special.

"The electricity was already there," said VandeBerg, a junior who caught a team-high six passes for 74 yards in Iowa's 40-35 victory over Minnesota.

The win was historic for the fifth-ranked Hawkeyes, 10-0 for the first time in school history and within one triumph of a Big Ten West title.

It was more memorable, though, for the sea of humanity that returned like a black wave of energy, hungry to embrace -- or, in the case of some, to meet -- these Hawkeyes.

Fans filled every foot of space 35 minutes before kickoff on Kinnick's west concourse. Bodies surged through some kind of mosh pit-like assembly line as chants of "Let's go Hawks," erupted spontaneously.

With seven minutes on the pregame clock, AC/DC's "Back in Black" greeted coach Kirk Ferentz and his players upon their entrance.

The song may just as well have been aimed at Iowa's fans: Welcome back.

Despite Iowa's run toward a shot at its first perfect home season since 2004 Saturday against Purdue (11 a.m., ESPN2), fans have been slow to show up in big numbers here.

Since Iowa sold out every home game in 2011, four years of declining season-ticket sales have followed. This year, even with a full house of 70,585 on Saturday, home attendance is down 6.4 percent from 2014.

Only two Iowa crowds in six games have surpassed the season-low figure from last year of 64,210 against Ball State. Burdened by the sluggish season sales, Iowa is assured its lowest home attendance average since 2000, which came on the heels of Ferentz's 1-10 debut season.

On Sunday, as the Hawkeyes basked in the aftermath of a wrestling-football doubleheader that brought 112,882 through the gates at Kinnick in a euphoric, 12-hour stretch, athletic director Gary Barta issued a letter to fans, encouraging their attendance this week for Senior Day as Iowa bids to reach 11-0.

"If you have tickets to the game, thank you for your support," Barta wrote. "Please consider encouraging other fans of the Hawkeyes to join you. If you haven't made it to Kinnick this fall, this is your final opportunity … and what an opportunity it is -- a chance to cheer the Hawkeyes to a perfect season in Kinnick and advance to Indianapolis."

What an odd confluence of circumstances. Clearly, for Iowa fans, in the larger sense, pain lingers from recent disappointment, which peaked as the Hawkeyes tripped at home in November losses last year to Wisconsin and Nebraska.

An uninspiring bowl loss to Tennessee came next, then the announcement of a quarterback change from two-year starter Jake Rudock to C.J. Beathard and an offseason of questions about faltering momentum and Ferentz's sizeable contract.

Barta tackled the declining ticket sales with new strategies before the season and issued public support for Ferentz, rarely a positive indicator. The university said it expected a dip in football revenue of $3 million this year, which is never a positive.

And then, Iowa started winning.

"It's a lot of fun," senior center Austin Blythe said Saturday of celebrating with the Iowa fans. "It's something special. It's something I'll remember forever. You always hear honorary captains come back and talk about moments like this.

"This is something, coming into this season, that I wanted to happen as a senior. I wanted to be a part of a team that coach Ferentz references 10 years from now."

Ferentz, too, described the atmosphere Saturday night as "electric." He said he talked to the players early in the day about headlines that screamed of mounting pressure on the Hawkeyes as their ranking and record soar.

"It's funny," the 60-year-old coach said, "there was a different headline early in the season about pressure. I won't go down that road right now."

Barta, the AD, spoke glowingly as midnight approached, describing the events of the past few hours as "a great day in our history."

Meanwhile, Beathard, the unflappable QB installed in the darkest of days, struggled to escape the grasp of fans as he exited the field.

"It's awesome," he said. "It's like a dream. I'm just blessed to be in the situation where people follow me and like me that much."

Interestingly, back in that hour before kickoff as the mosh pit formed in the concourse, Rudock led Michigan to an overtime win at Indiana. He set a school record with six touchdown passes. But among those who noticed in Iowa City, not a soul seemed to consider his past with the Hawkeyes.

For one night, and just maybe moving forward, they're living in the moment at Iowa.