Another miracle win was in the books, and the chant began to echo around Kinnick Stadium, the redbrick home of the Hawkeyes, the other field of dreams in Iowa. "Nine and Oh!" the faithful boomed as the Iowa players walked off the field after their 42--24 Halloween thriller over Indiana. A yellow-and-black-clad fan in a zombie mask waved a sign that read undead and undefeated. Bon Jovi blared on stadium speakers with what might as well be the theme song of Iowa's improbable perfect season: Livin' on a Prayer.
Only an hour earlier this scene was unimaginable. Only an hour earlier Hawkeyes junior quarterback Ricky Stanzi sat alone on the sideline, his head down. Iowa trailed by 10 points as the third quarter wound down, and Stanzi's stat line read: 10 of 23, 160 yards, five interceptions.
During the TV timeout Iowa punter Ryan Donahue walked over to his quarterback, leaned down and said, "Ready for the greatest quarter of your life?"
Stanzi, who with four picks had just experienced the worst quarter of his life, looked up and replied, "Absolutely."
Less than two minutes into the period, with the Hawkeyes backed up at their eight-yard line, Stanzi rolled right and lofted an intermediate-length pass to sophomore wideout Marvin McNutt, who beat a defender to the sideline and found the field in front of him as open as an Iowa cornfield. Touchdown. On his next snap, barely a minute later, Stanzi faked a handoff, took three steps to his right and delivered a gorgeous bomb to junior wideout Derrell Johnson-Koulianos for a 66-yard touchdown that gave Iowa its first lead, 28--24. So, thanks to consecutive plays that covered 158 yards, the Hawkeyes were on their way to a victory that would extend their winning streak to 13 games (the nation's second longest, behind Florida's 18), preserve their No. 4 BCS ranking and make them the team best positioned to crash the BCS championship game if two of the Big Three—Florida, Texas and Alabama—take a tumble in the season's final month (box, page 53).
Facing a 4--4 Indiana team a week after escaping from East Lansing with a last-play win (the Hawkeyes beat Michigan State on Stanzi's seven-yard TD connection to McNutt as time expired), Iowa needed that pair of clutch bombs from its quarterback, a slew of favorable calls from the officials and—with the Hoosiers leading 21--7 and lining up two yards from another touchdown in the third quarter—a miraculous interception in which the ball ricocheted four times among three players before landing in the hands of Iowa safety Tyler Sash, who dashed 86 yards for a touchdown.
The ugly win will do nothing to quiet the college football cognoscenti who have called the Hawkeyes everything from "frauds" (an ESPN talking head) to "the worst 7--0 team in Big Ten history" (a Detroit News columnist before the win at Michigan State). The victory did confirm one thing about the Hawkeyes, who needed two blocked field goals in the closing seconds to survive against Northern Iowa, have won four games by three points or less, have trailed in all but one game and have rallied from 10-point deficits three times: They are the most charmed team in America.
BCS computers, of course, aren't swayed by style points—or the lack thereof. Nor do the machines take into account margin of victory, which explains why they are giving the Hawkeyes so much more respect than the humans who vote in the USA Today and Harris polls. As of Sunday the Hawkeyes were first or second in five of the six computer rankings the BCS uses, largely because their opponents are a combined 17 games over .500.
"That's nice," says Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, "but if the computers had eyes and could see us play, trust me, they'd be saying, 'Are you kidding me?'"
Iowa bashers, Ferentz isn't looking for your love. In fact, he sees where you're coming from. The idea that the Hawkeyes are one of the country's premier teams—on the same level as the titans they trail from the SEC and the Big 12—is almost absurd to the longtime Iowa coach. "The way I look at it, every year there are eight to 10 teams that are endowed and a group of 30 to 40 teams that make up the next tier," says Ferentz, a Bill Belichick disciple who grew up in western Pennsylvania idolizing Chuck Noll. Asked if the Hawkeyes should be considered an elite team, Ferentz says, "Oh, absolutely not. I never envision us that way."