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It's often said that a team takes on the personality of its coach, and in the case of Iowa this couldn't be more true. Like their stone-faced leader, the Hawkeyes are understated and humble, always prepared. Self-promotion isn't in Ferentz's DNA; as the BCS debate heats up, don't expect him to be politicking during halftime at nationally televised games, as Mack Brown and Urban Meyer have in years past. Asked if he'd join the trend of coaches who are turning to Twitter to publicize their programs, Ferentz says, "If you see me with a Twitter account, hit me with a baseball bat. I don't think anyone cares if I have Wheaties or Honey Nut Cheerios."
Actually, people in football-crazed Iowa probably do care. Since Ferentz was hired in late 1998 to replace the legendary Hayden Fry after Iowa's first choice, Bob Stoops, took the job at Oklahoma, he has been under intense scrutiny. The 54-year-old Ferentz, the highest-paid state employee in Iowa at nearly $3 million a year, is often mentioned as an NFL head coaching candidate, but he is a perfect fit in Iowa City. "None of us here were the first choice to the prom," says Ferentz, who after sharing the Big Ten title in 2004 had gone 28--22 entering this season. "That's players and coaches and certainly includes me."
These Hawkeyes are a no-name team, devoid of stars. McNutt, who has emerged as the team's biggest playmaker on offense, began last season as the third-string quarterback. On Saturday true freshman Brandon Wegher ran for 118 yards and scored three TDs while filling in for Adam Robinson, who's out for the year after injuring his ankle against Michigan State. The leader on defense, Pat Angerer, a tattoo-covered, MMA-obsessed senior middle linebacker who lives up to his name with his aggressiveness ("If there's a scuffle in practice, you can be pretty sure Pat's in the middle of it," says Stanzi), was ready to quit football two years ago because of injuries. "Everyone's on the same page," says Angerer. "Everyone's humble, everyone's confident, everyone has a mutual respect. And that all comes from Coach Ferentz."
This year Ferentz says he has listened to his players during games more than ever, and in key moments that has paid off big. As the offense huddled on the sideline during a timeout before that final play at Michigan State, McNutt, who had run a fade route on the previous two plays, told offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe that the Spartans cornerback covering him was lined up on his outside. "I can win on the slant," McNutt said. Stanzi threw a bullet to McNutt as the wideout crossed the goal line and the game clock went to zero. The last time Iowa had run a quick slant like that? "I can't remember," Stanzi says.
No player epitomizes the Hawkeyes' resilience more than Stanzi, who has thrown nearly as many interceptions (13) as touchdown passes (14) yet is 17--3 as a starter and has led six second-half comebacks. His reputation as a clutch quarterback began last season when he led Iowa on two scoring drives in the final 13 minutes of a stunning November upset of No. 3 Penn State. Thus began the Iowa winning streak.
Late nights at the Hawkeyes' football facility, Stanzi and his fellow quarterbacks are often the only ones in the building, hunkered down in a video room breaking down opposing defenses. Stanzi watches two to three hours of football video a day. "It's not the most fun thing to do on a Tuesday night at 11," he says, "but these are the little things Coach Ferentz is always talking about. Sometimes it takes until midnight to understand the looks you'll be facing."
Says Ferentz, "No one works harder [or] is more dedicated than Ricky. He sets the tone for the team."
Two nights before the Indiana game, Stanzi took a break from the cramming and went with four teammates to see the thriller Paranormal Activity. "It was the second time I'd seen it in five days," he says. "I knew what was coming, and still, the end scared the living daylights out of me." That's not unlike the scare the Hawkeyes have given their fans time and again this season.
The last great Iowa team? The Chuck Long--led '85 Hawkeyes, who won the Big Ten title but had their perfect season ended by Ohio State on a rain-soaked November Saturday in Columbus. For this year's Hawkeyes another huge clash at the Horseshoe looms on Nov. 14. Iowa hasn't won in five visits to Columbus since 1991, and a trip to the Rose Bowl could be on the line—perhaps even a spot in the BCS title game in Pasadena on Jan. 7. Even if the Hawkeyes run the table, they'll need some more good fortune if they expect to play for the national championship. "Is our luck going to run out? Maybe," junior left tackle Bryan Bulaga said on Saturday. "But as long as it keeps going, we'll keep riding it. They say it's better to be lucky than good."
If they win out, in fact, the Hawkeyes finally might convince the skeptics that they are both lucky and good.