IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP)—The mystery of the 13th-ranked Iowa Hawkeyes only deepened Saturday.
What is indisputable, though, is that the Hawkeyes are off to their best start in 14 years—no matter how ugly it’s often been.
Ricky Stanzi threw for a season-high 296 yards and three touchdowns and Iowa slipped past Arkansas State 24-21 on Saturday to improve to 5-0 for the first time under coach Kirk Ferentz.
But just one week after winning at Penn State to vault back into the Top 25, the Hawkeyes allowed the Red Wolves to hang around, much like they did in a narrow win over Northern Iowa in the opener.
“I’ve been around this thing long enough where I don’t worry so much how you get there, just a matter of getting there,” Ferentz said. “I know where we’re at right now. This is maiden territory for us.”
In 1995, Iowa lost four straight after starting 5-0 but finished 8-4.
Arkansas State pulled within 24-21 with 2:01 left, when Corey Leonard capped a 17-play drive with a 4-yard TD pass to Trevor Gillott. The Red Wolves got the ball back with 10 seconds left at their own 18, but Leonard missed on two long throws.
Stanzi threw touchdown passes of 33 and 41 yards on Iowa’s first two drives, and his 43-yard TD toss to Marvin McNutt early in the second half put the Hawkeyes ahead 21-7.
But Stanzi, like the rest of the Hawkeyes, wasn’t perfect. He threw a pair of interceptions, including one that Demario Davis brought back 75 yards for a touchdown with 14:41 left.
Leonard had 216 yards passing and two TDs to lead Arkansas State (1-3), which lost its third straight game and fell to 0-9 against Top 25 teams.
“We didn’t come here for moral victories or anything like that. We felt we could win the game, and we didn’t do it,” Arkansas State coach Steve Roberts said.
Iowa had a chance to bury the pesky Red Wolves until Davis’ interception return—complete with a back flip into the end zone—cut the Hawkeyes’ lead to 7.
The stunt drew a penalty, though, allowing Iowa to start near midfield for its next drive, and Daniel Murray’s 20-yard field goal put the Hawkeyes on top 24-14 with 10 minutes left.
Arkansas State didn’t flinch. The Red Wolves moved 68 yards, including a 26-yard completion by Leonard on third-and-27 and a jump pass to a wide-open Gillott for a touchdown.
Though Iowa players insisted they wouldn’t overlook the Red Wolves after an emotional win over Penn State and with Michigan coming to town next week, it appeared as though they did just that.
The sluggish win was reminiscent of when the Hawkeyes needed to block two field goal attempts in the closing seconds to beat Northern Iowa, an FCS school.
“They stuck around, stuck around, stuck around and it almost bit us in the butt. But we got the job done,” Iowa wide receiver Trey Stross said.
Arkansas State entered the third quarter with some momentum after a late second-quarter touchdown, only to watch Iowa safety Tyler Sash make his fifth interception of the year on a long ball that sailed on Leonard. Two plays later, Stanzi and McNutt hooked up for the second time to put the Hawkeyes ahead 21-7.
The Red Wolves then tried to shake things up with a fake punt, but that only put them in a deeper hole when Ryan Wilbourn was stopped short of the first down. Murray missed a 28-yard field goal try, though, keeping it a two-touchdown game.
Stanzi avoided a slow start this time. Throwing into a stiff and swirling wind, he had touchdown passes of 33 yards to Stross and 41 yards to McNutt— both in the perfect spot—to put Iowa ahead 14-0 midway through the first quarter.
McNutt’s two touchdown catches were the first of his career. He had 121 yards receiving.
“We did enough to get the win. We did what we had to do,” Stanzi said. “It’s a good thing that we have things we can still be working on, because we’re far from perfect.”
Kinnick Stadium failed to sell out for just the second time in 40 games, and the weather was a likely factor. The temperatures hovered in the low 50s—well below normal for Iowa City in early October—and those swirling winds made it feel much colder.
Those who braved the elements saw an imperfect Iowa team stay perfect—at least for now.
“They all count equally. This one counted just like the one last week; that’s all I know,” Ferentz said. “At the end of the year, no style points.”