IOWA CITY — There are two Iowas.
One has its helmet on backward. The other is the Most Interesting Football Team in the World. One has its hip pad in its mouth. The other jumps out of airplanes and pulls babies out of burning buildings. One eats glue. The other sends its mail without a stamp and it still gets there.
The one with the backward helmet fell behind by three touchdowns late in the third quarter Saturday. The Most Interesting Team in the World turned around and scored three touchdowns in the final 10 minutes to complete the greatest comeback in Iowa football history.
Quarterback James Vandenberg completed 31 of 48 for 399 yards and three fourth-quarter touchdowns, including two to redshirt freshman receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley, to pull the Hawkeyes (2-1) from a 24-3 deficit with 3:11 left in the third quarter to a thrilling 31-27 victory over Pittsburgh (2-1) before 70,585 at Kinnick Stadium.
Micah Hyde finished last week as a free safety, began Saturday in his old spot at cornerback and finished the game with his second interception at Iowa’s 43 with 1:41 left.
According to Iowa sports information, the 21-point comeback was the greatest in Iowa history. The 1949 Hawkeyes fell behind Oregon 24-6 with 2:30 left in the third quarter before pulling it out 34-31 at Kinnick.
“It was going to be a learning experience, either way,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said, “at least this one has a happy ending. Now, what are we going to do with it?”
Pittsburgh took a 24-3 lead on a Tino Sunseri 4-yard TD pass to Drew Carswell with 3:11 left in the third. Iowa took its next drive and sprinted 60 yards on five plays with Vandenberg scoring from the 1 with 1:16 in the third, making it 24-10. The Panthers drove for a 24-yard field goal to make it 27-10 with 12:09 left in the fourth.
Vandenberg volleyed with a 14-yard TD pass to wide receiver Keenan Davis to make it 27-17 with 9:55 left.
“Clearly, I would’ve liked to have played four quarters like this,” said Vandenberg, whose 31 completions were fourth most in Iowa history. “What matters is we pulled this out as a team.”
Pitt’s turn went all the way to Iowa’s 36. On fourth-and-3, Sunseri rolled right and overthrew a wide receiver. This gave the Hawkeyes, and a white-hot quarterback, a first down and 7:56 left on the clock.
“Obviously, their coach trusted his offense and that’s a coach who’s playing aggressively,” cornerback Shaun Prater said. “Hey, if he thinks his offense can get it done, go for it. As a defense, we are all going to stick together, play our technique and hopefully get the turnover.”
The fourth-and-3 opened the door. Iowa was in full-go, no-huddle. Vandenberg couldn’t be stopped. When Iowa fell behind 24-3, Vandenberg hit his next 10 passes. He finished the game 17 of 20 for 217 yards with three TDs.
“Should have punted the ball,” first-year Pitt coach Todd Graham said. “We’re on the road and, yeah, I felt like we were struggling to stop them.”
Iowa’s final two scoring drives were nearly identical. Both went seven plays and covered 64 yards. Martin-Manley finished them off with TD grabs of 25 and 22 yards over Pitt linebacker Todd Thomas.
“They were the same play,” said Martin-Manley, who has three TD catches this season. “It was an up route. The second one I had to twist, but I told myself if the ball was in the air, I was going to get it.”
When Iowa went to no-huddle, Vandenberg went to junior Keenan Davis, who had career highs of 10 receptions for 129 yards and a TD. Senior Marvin McNutt got his, too, catching seven passes for 112 yards. It was the first time since Indiana 2009 Iowa had a pair of receivers go for more than 100 receiving yards.
So, that no-huddle looked pretty good.
“It was different and that’s what probably won us the game, being different,” Davis said, “and them not expecting it.”
After allowing 473 yards and 44 points at Iowa State last week, the theme for Iowa’s defense this week was “defend the defense.” If you think the Iowa defenders didn’t know what was being said about them, you’re wrong.
“We’ve been taking a lot of heat lately,” said Hyde, who now has six career interceptions. “In the locker room, we don’t think about it. We just have to come out and play as a team and play our roles.”
“Defending the defense” started Tuesday, when Iowa’s defensive coaches implemented a number of lineup changes. The secondary was completely overhauled. Hyde was back at corner, replacing junior Greg Castillo. Sophomore Tanner Miller went in for Hyde at free safety. Senior Jordan Bernstine replaced junior Collin Sleeper at strong safety.
Sophomore Dominic Alvis moved from tackle to end and replaced senior Lebron Daniel. Senior Thomas Nardo got the start at tackle.
It wasn’t perfect — Pitt had 422 yards and had scoring plays of 66 and 30 — but it was better. Hyde had two interceptions. Pitt fumbled five times. Iowa had just two sacks going in and came up with three Saturday and six tackles for loss. Iowa caused four fumbles.
“You never know what’s going to happen,” Ferentz said. “Someone has to reach down and do something, too. You can say, ‘Let’s keep playing, guys,’ but someone has to make something happen.”
Someone turned their helmets around and they became the Most Interesting Football Team in the World.