MADISON, Wis – To date, Iowa has cleared all hurdles place before it. The weekend presented it with one it hadn’t seen in some time.
The Hawkeyes defeated then-No. 19 Wisconsin, 10-6, Saturday here at Camp Randall Stadium. It represented their first win versus a ranked opponent in four seasons (2011, No. 13 Michigan). A day later, they became ranked (No. 22 AP, No. 23 Coaches) for the first time since ’10.
Iowa entered the season with low outside expectations following last year’s underwhelming 7-6 campaign that saw it lose four of its final five games. Starting the season 5-0 for the first time since ’09 and just the fifth time since ’61 ensured a flip of the script. It went from hunter to hunted.
Social media is abuzz with news of the Hawkeyes being ranked again. Players will arrive in classes as conquering heroes on Monday.
"We were ignoring the noise before the season and we’re just going to try to ignore the noise now," Junior Offensive Lineman Cole Croston said.
Iowa has been riding sports cliches from January’s blowout loss to Tennessee in the Taxslayer Bowl to being unbeaten in October. Real or imagined, players and coaches have approached everything step by step, one workout, one play, one game at a time. All along, 5-0 wasn’t the goal.
"It’s the mentality we have of not being satisfied," Senior Running Back Jordan Canzeri said. "When we went 2-0, it didn’t matter. We’re not satisfied; 3-0 not satisfied; 4-0 not satisfied. Now, we’re still not satisfied."
The Hawkeyes have faced opportunities for letdowns this season. After winning an emotional game at rival Iowa State, they hung tough with a physical Pittsburgh team a week later, capturing victory on a last-second, 57-yard field goal from Marshall Koehn. Against an inferior North Texas the following Saturday, they remained on task in a 62-16 rout, refusing to look ahead to Wisconsin.
"That’s how it’s been for the whole team for the whole season," said Tight end George Kittle, who’s caught touchdowns in each of the last two games. "We focused on North Texas. We didn’t even think about Wisconsin. When Wisconsin came, we thought about Wisconsin and now we’re going to think about Illinois."
The schedule presents another pitfall possibility for Iowa. The Illini comes to Kinnick Stadium Saturday (11 a.m. CT, TBA) for Hawkeye Homecoming with parades and celebrations sure to amp up the atmosphere around campus.
"I think we’re in a groove. I think we’re mature enough," Defensive End Drew Ott said. "We haven’t been great at (handling success in the past) but I think we know how to keep a level head and take it one game at a time."
While this group of Hawkeye players is ranked for the first time, Head Coach Kirk Ferentz has traveled this road before during his 16 plus seasons leading the program. The Dean of Big Ten coaches was likely to be prepared for any fat cat mentality that might creep into the facility.
"We’re not going to get too excited about (being ranked)," Ferentz said. "If we’re there in November, great, but to me statistics and rankings really mean very little. I know we’re into October now but five weeks into it it’s hard to get excited about anything other than what we’re doing as a football team. That can excite you a little bit."
As Croston said, Iowa has succeeded in ignoring what’s being said about it. Had it listened to the doom and gloom from the outside this off-season, it would have packed up the equipment and buried its head in the sand. It’s not been surprised by the start and that should help in keeping the momentum.
"We’ve known we were for real all along. We’re just getting a chance to prove it to everybody else," Iowa Quarterback C.J. Beathard said.
The Hawkeyes reclaimed their second trophy of the season Saturday after being shut out a year ago. The post-game festivities proved emotional as the players hauled the Heartland Trophy over to their fans in the stands and sang the fight song in enemy territory. Canzeri believed he and his teammates would keep it all in proper perspective.
"This win was amazing. We’re going to remember this celebration for the rest of our lives but we’re going to put it behind us so we can focus on the next team and put 100 percent into them," he said.