Time to consider Iowa a serious contender after last-second win

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Saturday's slate of games showed us yet again that no one seems bent on running away with the national championship. A week after Florida and Texas pulled out three-point squeakers, Alabama needed a last-second field goal block to survive Tennessee. While the 'Horns rebounded with a rousing blowout of Missouri, the Gators got pushed around at times by Mississippi State before pulling away.

Against this continued backdrop of last-second field goals and defensive struggles, maybe it's time to consider the possibility that Iowa's own run at perfection is in the cards. The seventh-ranked Hawkeyes improved to 8-0 on Saturday for the first time in school history, but it took until the very last play of the game to make it happen. It took until that same last play for Iowa to even get into the end zone.

But the Hawkeyes' last-second, 15-13 win at Michigan State was simply the latest installment of a season already ripe with drama. They needed a pair of last-second blocked field goals just to survive their opener (Northern Iowa). They've twice rallied from 10-point deficits (Penn State and Wisconsin). Now they can add a 7-yard touchdown pass from Ricky Stanzi to Marvin McNutt with no time remaining to what is looking more and more like a storybook season.

For 58 minutes, these teams staged the definition of a defensive stalemate. It was 3-3 at halftime, 6-6 in the fourth quarter. At one point, Iowa stopped Michigan State three times from the 1-yard line. Less than a quarter later, the Spartans' defense pulled off the same thing. So when the Hawkeyes went up 9-6 with just 2:56 remaining on Daniel Murray's third field goal of the night, you figured the best Michigan State could hope for was overtime.

But much like the Alabama-Tennessee game earlier Saturday, or the LSU-Georgia game a few weeks back, both offenses inexplicably sprung to life on their last possessions. Facing third and 18 from their own 32-yard line, the Spartans broke out a hook and lateral (Kirk Cousins to tight end Brian Linthicum to receiver Blair White) that would make Boise State proud. The play gained 38 yards. Two plays later, Cousins hit White for a 30-yard go-ahead TD with 1:49 left.

So how did Iowa respond? The previously ineffective Stanzi calmly drove his team 63 yards in six plays to set up first and goal at the 7. His first three passes fell incomplete, leaving him one last play with two seconds remaining. With first place in the Big Ten and an undefeated season on the line, Stanzi, exploiting one-on-one coverage, fired a laser to McNutt for the winning score.

Stanzi finished just 11-of-27 for 138 yards, but if he keeps this up he's going to approach Chuck Long-caliber adulation in Iowa City.

Having now won its three biggest games of the season all on the road (Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan State), Iowa's Rose Bowl/BCS hopes may well come down to one last daunting trip. Barring a collapse in one of their three remaining home games (Indiana, Northwestern and Minnesota), the Big Ten title will most likely be decided Nov. 14 when the Hawkeyes visit Ohio State (6-2, 4-1 Big Ten).

At the very least, Iowa figures to be playing that day for its first Rose Bowl berth since 1990. But it's time for BCS followers to start seriously considering the possibility of the Hawkeyes playing a week later in Pasadena. The continued ugly, low-scoring nature of the Hawkeyes' victories is probably not doing Iowa a lot of favors with the pollsters, but Saturday's win was no "uglier" than the Tide's over Tennessee. And unlike Florida against Arkansas, Iowa's last-second survival came on the road, not at home.

Iowa's season hasn't been all that different from that of the other top contenders around the country, but maybe more unexpected.

"We've been nationally ranked the last two weeks and been underdogs both weeks. That might be a record in itself," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Saturday night. When it was suggested perhaps his team will finally be favorites next week, he responded, "It's possible. We'll see. ... We like it this way."