– Rows of houses along Melrose Avenue overflowed with fans barbecuing, enjoying adult beverages and tossing beanbags many hours before kickoff.

Groups of fans dressed in all black moved up and down the main drag leading to Kinnick Stadium. Front lawns and side streets were jammed packed with revelers.

The atmosphere was festive and hopeful. And perfect for the occasion, a rivalry game with big stakes on a postcard Saturday afternoon.

This is how college football should look and feel.

The game didn’t disappoint, either.

Unless you’re a fan of defense. Then you probably wanted to slam your head repeatedly against a brick wall after watching 60 minutes of the defense-optional display in the Iowa Hawkeyes’ 40-35 victory against the Gophers.

Was that football or a tennis match?

Back-and-forth, back-and-forth, the teams took turns trading offensive haymakers.

Their defenses looked helpless.

The teams combined for 940 yards, 51 first downs, 10 touchdowns, 15 third-down conversions and enough missed tackles to last a lifetime.

This rivalry always packs emotion, but the 109th meeting had a big-game feel to it because of what’s at stake for Iowa.

The Hawkeyes have undergone a revival this season, an unexpected jolt for a program that had grown sleepy and stagnant.

The Hawks finished 4-8 in 2012, losing their final six games.

They lost to the Gophers 51-14 last season, the most points they had surrendered to their neighbors since 1949.

The grumbling over Kirk Ferentz’s status as a fixture on the sideline grew louder and louder.

Ferentz is king of the farmland again, and Iowa’s faithful fans are being rewarded for their patience.

The Hawkeyes improved to 10-0 for the first time in program history and moved up to No. 5 in the College Football Playoff rankings this week.

They will be favored to win their final two games and then would likely face Ohio State in the Big Ten title game. That would earn them either a playoff berth or a spot in Rose Bowl.

The Hawkeyes have won with balance all season, but the script changed Saturday and required them to win a shootout.

The Hawkeyes basically did whatever they so desired on offense. They strung together a 91-yard touchdown drive and a 97-yard touchdown drive in the first half.

They made it look easy. Too easy, especially for a Gophers team that prides itself on defense and just promoted its defensive coordinator to head coach.

Iowa’s offense is far more dynamic and unpredictable with C.J. Beathard at the controls. Beathard plays quarterback like he’s in his backyard. Always freelancing, keeping plays alive with his feet, searching for an open receiver downfield or room to run.

He passed for 213 yards and rushed for 50 yards and two touchdowns. He’s an exciting talent.

Gophers coach Tracy Claeys barked at the officials over a few non-calls, but his defense wasn’t good enough to justify a loud complaint. The Hawkeyes rushed for 272 yards and five touchdowns and converted 10 of 15 third-down chances.

Hard to win that way.

“It’s not because of our effort, that’s for sure,” Claeys said.

Claeys again lamented the rash of injuries to the two-deep. Whether you view that as an excuse or an explanation doesn’t really matter at this point.

The Gophers took another ranked team to the wire, but the whole moral victory conversation has grown old. This program should be way beyond that conversation by now.

The Hawkeyes were not unconquerable, especially with how their defense played.

Mitch Leidner gave the Gophers a chance with another solid all-around game. He passed for 259 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 32 yards and a touchdown.

Leidner continues to mature before our eyes. Many of us called for his benching earlier in the season when the offense functioned with the ease of a person trapped in quick sand.

Leidner played skittish, threw wildly and seemed to be regressing by the game.

He looks like a different quarterback now. He stands in the pocket against pressure. Fewer passes sail over his receivers’ heads. He’s making the right reads more often.

Leidner is not the problem. In fact, his individual improvement has been a bright spot in an increasingly disappointing season, which continued with a fourth consecutive loss.

This one cost them possession of a bronze pig and the bitterness of a border rival remaining perfect.


Chip Scoggins chip.scoggins@startribune.com