IOWA CITY, Iowa — Of all the holes Iowa has dug itself, this was the deepest.
Indiana was leading by 14 in the third quarter and just two yards away from the Hawkeyes’ end zone. Given how poorly quarterback Ricky Stanzi was playing, one more touchdown might have brought their charmed season crashing down.
Tyler Sash instead returned an interception 86 yards for a touchdown, and Stanzi bounced back from a career-high five interceptions to rally the No. 7 Hawkeyes to a 42-24 victory, yet another improbable finish in a season full of them.
Brandon Wegher had a career-high 118 yards rushing and three TDs for the Hawkeyes (9-0, 5-0 Big Ten), who scored 28 points in the fourth quarter to stun the shell-shocked Hoosiers.
“No matter what happens, we know there’s still time left on the clock,” Stanzi said. “There’s a chance to win, so you can’t give up.”
Iowa is off to the best start in school history, thanks to four wins by three points or less. And after needing two blocked field goals to beat FCS school Northern Iowa in its opener, the Hawks control their own destiny in the Big Ten — with a chance to play for the BCS title.
“Our guys don’t buckle,” coach Kirk Ferentz said. “If they were ever going to buckle, I think today would have been the day.”
Stanzi threw four interceptions in the third quarter alone on a windy day in Iowa City, and Indiana (4-5, 1-4) took a 24-14 lead into the fourth.
Stanzi responded by hitting Marvin McNutt for a 92-yard touchdown pass and, moments later, connecting with Derrell Johnson-Koulianos from 66 yards to put Iowa ahead 28-24 with 11:38 left.
Wegher made it 35-24 on a 6-yard TD run and added a 27-yard score with 1:12 remaining.
Ben Chappell had 227 yards passing and two touchdowns to lead Indiana, which must have felt a case of deja vu. The Hoosiers blew a 25-point lead in a loss at Northwestern last week.
“We got into the fourth quarter again and we couldn’t fight it off,” Indiana coach Bill Lynch said. “We just didn’t have enough plays in our arsenal to hang with them.”
Stanzi’s mental toughness has long been defended by Ferentz, and he showed why at the start of the fourth quarter. He hit McNutt on a play-action rollout for what turned out to be the fourth-longest pass play in Iowa history. Johnson-Koulianos did most of the work on the other long touchdown, weaving his way through the Indiana secondary.
“No matter what happens, he keeps on playing,” Ferentz said of Stanzi, who threw for a career-high 337 yards. “If there’s one thing I can say about Rick, it’s resiliency. He’s done a great job of leading our football team.”
Stanzi opened the second half throwing interceptions on back-to-back possessions, and the Hoosiers moved to Iowa’s 2-yard line already leading 21-7.
That’s when Iowa’s defense made one more spectacular play.
Chappell was hit from behind as he dropped back to pass, and Sash gathered the loose ball in the air before racing 86 yards for a touchdown that brought Iowa within 21-14 and woke up a stunned crowd at Kinnick Stadium.
“It’s just something that jumps start everybody,” Iowa kicker Daniel Murray said. “It just kind of gave us confidence that we were back in the game.”
The Hoosiers appeared to have answered on a TD grab by Terrance Turner in the corner of the end zone, but the call was overturned by video and Nick Freeland missed a 28-yard field goal.
The game was strange right from the start — perfect these cardiac Hawkeyes on Halloween.
Iowa deferred on the opening kickoff, a rarity under Ferentz, and the Hoosiers marched 69 yards into the wind for a 7-0 lead on Darius Willis’s 4-yard run.
Ryan Donahue, one of the most reliable punters in the nation, shanked an 8-yarder into the stands midway through the second quarter, giving the Hoosiers the ball at the Hawkeyes 35. Five plays later, Chappell found Mitchell Evans for a 16-yard TD pass that made it 14-0.
The Hawkeyes answered on Wegher’s 4-yard TD run with 2:39 left in the first half, but after holding Indiana, Amari Spievey inexplicably picked up a wobbly punt and fumbled it away deep in his own territory. Chappell found Damarlo Belcher for a 9-yard TD with 9 seconds left.
It was a brutal end to the first half for Iowa, and a brutal end to the game for Indiana.
As a stunned and delighted crowd of Hawkeye fans filed out of Kinnick Stadium, they were serenaded — quite fittingly — by Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer.”
“I’ve never been in a game like this. I’ve never seen a game like this,” Ferentz said. “I can’t say enough about our players.”