Pittsburgh — Kirk Ferentz is learning to embrace his inner riverboat gambler. And with good reason. At the moment, the Iowa coach is on a roll.
For 30 methodically brilliant minutes against unbeaten Pittsburgh on Saturday, so was his team.
Mark Weisman ran for 88 yards and two touchdowns, including a 1-yard plunge with 6:56 remaining to lift the Hawkeyes to a 24-20 victory. The senior running back's 20th career score came at the end of a 13-play drive in which Ferentz opted to go for it twice on fourth down rather than attempt a short field goal that would have tied the game.
"He has confidence in us," Weisman said. "So it's our job to get it done some way, somehow."
The Hawkeyes (3-1) trailed by 10 at the half but surged when C.J. Beathard replaced injured starting quarterback Jake Rudock at the start of the third quarter. Beathard hit Damond Powell for a 62-yard gain to jumpstart the comeback and Weisman followed with a 10-yard sprint into the end zone for his first score. His second gave Iowa its first lead.
"It's a resilient team, this team," Weisman said. "The best Iowa teams are and we strive to be one. We're on the right track. We're not there yet."
Iowa recovered from a potentially devastating loss to rival Iowa State last week by dominating the line of scrimmage in the second half and neutralizing Pitt running back James Conner. The sophomore rushed for 155 yards and a touchdown but was held in check over the final 30 minutes as the Panthers (3-1) failed to improve to 4-0 for the first time since 2000. Chad Voytik passed for a career-high 250 yards but a last-gasp drive ended with an interception.
"A game like that just comes down to a few plays," Pitt coach Paul Chryst said. "They made them and we didn't."
Especially in the second half.
The Hawkeyes appeared lifeless at times in the first half as Pitt built a 17-7 lead behind Conner and sophomore wide receiver Tyler Boyd.
"We were getting worked pretty good there in the first half, I really can't remember getting worked like that," Ferentz said. "They pretty much did anything that they wanted to do."
It changed early in the third quarter when the long-haired Beathard stepped in for Rudock, who left after twisting his knee. Beathard completed 7 of 8 passes for 98 yards, including a rainbow that Powell hauled in with one hand to set up Weisman's touchdown that made it 17-14.
"C.J. knows what he's doing," Iowa tackle Brandon Schreff said. "We just told him to do his job, and we would protect him. We gave him some time, and he did a great job in the second half."
The teams traded field goals and the Hawkeyes took control for good with a plodding 52-yard march that included Beathard sneaking for two yards on fourth-and-1 at the Pitt 15 and Weisman leaping for three yards on fourth-and-1 at the Pitt 4.
"I don't know if we were wearing them down or not but you hope to be," Weisman said. "That's what we strive to do to teams, wear them down at the end … it's back and forth game."
Pitt had two opportunities to take the lead but Voytik couldn't hit Boyd — who finished with 10 receptions for 153 yards — on fourth-and-10 with less than 2 minutes to play. The Panthers drove into Iowa territory in the waning seconds but Voytik's pass over the middle to Boyd sailed high and into the arms of Iowa safety Anthony Gair.
The Hawkeyes raced onto the field in celebration after righting their season. The Panthers trudged to the locker room in shock as their early momentum vanished. Pitt lost despite outgaining Iowa 435-311 and holding the ball for nearly 33 minutes.
"We just have to make the right plays and smart choices," Boyd said. "Everything started falling apart when the penalties started falling. We've got to get back on track."
Iowa came in seventh in the country against the run allowing all of 65 yards a game. Conner needed all of a quarter to top that total. Churning relentlessly behind a rapidly improving offensive line, the sophomore continued the best start by a running back in school history. He now has 699 yards on the season, well ahead of the pace set by Heisman Trophy winner Tony Dorsett in 1976.
Where Dorsett was a balletic mix of speed and grace, Conner is all blunt instrument. His 22-yard burst on Pitt's second possession set up a 13-yard dash by Chris James, the first rushing touchdown surrendered by the Hawkeyes this season.
The Hawkeyes found a way to plug the holes in the second half. Conner had 23 yards on his final 11 carries.