IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — There isn't much evidence to suggest that Iowa is all that good this season.
The Hawkeyes are resilient, though, and in the Big Ten in 2012, that might be enough.
An Iowa team that has looked awful at times is tied for first place in the Legends Division heading into Saturday night's home game against Penn State (4-2, 2-0 Big Ten).
Iowa has played spotty football at best for nearly the entire season. But the Hawkeyes (4-2, 2-0) have proven to be a mentally tough bunch, a trait that's allowed them to overcome more than a few shortcomings.
"We have good guys on our team, and I think we have good leadership. It probably starts and stops right there. I think our leaders have done a good job," coach Kirk Ferentz said. 'We have a lot of guys that aren't starting right now that are seniors ... we have a lot of good stories going on with those guys. They've really been all in."
Still, how does a team that can't throw the ball and lost at home to Central Michigan find themselves in control of their own destiny in the Big Ten? Strong defense, an even stronger running game and the ability to keep its focus when things aren't going well.
Oh, and the fact that the Big Ten is down doesn't hurt, either.
The Hawkeyes figured to be the type of team that would need to put up a bunch of points in the early going to help its young defense.
It's been the other way around.
The passing game behind quarterback James Vandenberg ranks second-to-last in the nation with just two touchdown passes. And Iowa's defense has grown up fast.
The Hawkeyes are allowing just 17.2 points per game and are 28th nationally in pass defense and 31st in run defense. They're also plus-7 in the turnover margin and have allowed just 26 total points in regulation in wins over Minnesota and Michigan State.
The Hawkeyes have also managed to run the ball effectively all season. Starter Mark Weisman sprained his right ankle scoring the game-tying touchdown in last week's 19-16 double-overtime win over the Spartans, and it's doubtful he'll be ready by Saturday.
Freshman Greg Garmon will likely start if Weisman can't. Iowa will likely ask more this weekend out of Vandenberg, who threw 25 touchdown passes in 201, but Vandenberg thinks the Hawkeyes should still be able to run the ball.
"They opened up holes for whoever's been at tailback this year. So, we feel confident that we have plenty of guys that can fill that role," Vandenberg said.
Iowa also appears to have a rather unique ability to keep forging ahead when its situation appears hopeless.
Iowa trailed all afternoon against Northern Illinois in the opener, but Damon Bullock's 23-yard TD run late in the fourth quarter helped it hold off the Huskies 18-17.
On Saturday, the Hawkeyes went 68 yards on their final drive of regulation to force overtime at Michigan State. Even though Iowa could only muster a pair of Mike Meyer field goals, cornerback Greg Castillo's interception of Andrew Maxwell sealed the win.
"To be honest, you've got to practice that, to be mentally strong. It doesn't just happen, week in and week out," senior cornerback Micah Hyde said. "We know it's going to be tough. We know it's going to be a hard-fought game. But in the end, we're prepared and we're mentally strong."
Iowa's fortitude has helped put it in position to play meaningful games from here on out.
After hosting the Nittany Lions, the Hawkeyes have their only back-to-back road games of the season at Northwestern and Indiana. Iowa then returns home to host Purdue.
The idea of Iowa having a legitimate shot at the Legends Division title seemed unthinkable after the loss to the Chippewas at home. But for a team whose upperclassmen are "all in," according to Ferentz, anything appears possible in the Big Ten this season.
"They're showing the younger guys how to act and how to do things. Good teams have that. Bad teams typically don't. There's a lot going on behind the scenes that maybe you don't see," Ferentz said.
Follow Luke Meredith on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/LukeMeredithAP