Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz takes news of canceled game in stride; Hawkeyes will focus on bowl now
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Kirk Ferentz wasn’t surprised to learn Tuesday afternoon that his Iowa football team won’t be playing a game Saturday after all.
The Hawkeyes coach had been bracing for such news all season. He told reporters repeatedly that he was just grateful that his team had been able to play its first eight scheduled Big Ten Conference games during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There was no anger or frustration from Ferentz that a coronavirus outbreak within the Michigan football program was depriving his team of a ninth game. Nor was there any sense that he was interested in finding a replacement opponent at such a late date.
Ferentz sent his well-wishes to the Wolverines, hoping for a speedy recovery. Then he turned his attention to his team.
“When it’s time to get back to work, we’ll get back to work,” Ferentz said. “This is a bye week come early.”
Michigan had canceled its previous two games because of rising COVID-19 numbers. The Wolverines returned to practice Sunday when the Big Ten announced its “Champions Week” slate of games, including a 6 p.m. Saturday date at Kinnick Stadium. But it was reported Tuesday that coach Jim Harbaugh’s roster was still greatly depleted.
Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel put out a statement confirming the situation had not improved enough to allow the Wolverines to play. Manuel said 50 players would be sidelined either because they had tested positive for the novel coronavirus or because of the need for contact tracing. Michigan's season will end with a 2-4 record.
“We are without a significant number of players for this week’s game,” Manuel said.
“Couple that with the normal attrition due to injury, and we do not have enough available players at multiple position groups to field a team at Iowa. We have more student-athletes out this week compared to last week and the week prior.”
There was immediate speculation that the No. 17 Hawkeyes would try to find a new opponent, perhaps one that would help burnish their chances for a prestigious New Year’s Six bowl game. Ferentz quickly shot that down. His team was already 75% of the way into its preparation to play Michigan after a Tuesday morning practice, Ferentz noted.
“To try to flip it over and try to play somebody else this weekend, it wouldn’t be fair to the sport. Most of all, it wouldn’t be fair to our players. It wouldn’t be representative of the kind of team that we want to put out on the field,” Ferentz said.
“We’ve gotten eight games in, so I think that would be a really regrettable thing.”
Iowa is the only Big Ten West team that completed its full regular-season slate. The Hawkeyes are riding a six-game winning streak. They were excited about a matchup with Michigan, Ferentz said, but also aware of the lingering COVID-19 issues in Ann Arbor.
Ferentz, who planned to address his players later Tuesday, said the concentration will turn to a bowl game now. He said the team is still excited about that prospect. The likeliest destinations for the Hawkeyes when pairings are announced Sunday are both in Florida: The Citrus Bowl in Orlando or the Outback Bowl in Tampa.
“As long as one of them will take us, that’s our plan. We want to play one more game,” Ferentz said. “I think our guys have had a lot of fun being together.”
That element was underscored in media interviews conducted with Hawkeye players Tuesday morning. Six of them spoke about the upcoming matchup before word arrived that the game had been called off.
Senior defensive end Chauncey Golston was happy to get one more game at Kinnick Stadium, after going through Senior Day activities before Saturday’s home win over Wisconsin. He had assumed that would be his last time playing in Kinnick. For three days, he was able to believe otherwise. But it turns out that it was his last home game as a Hawkeye player.
“This is what I’m going to look back on down the road,” Golston said of a Kinnick Stadium reprise. “Being able to play at Kinnick Stadium one more time.
“Because the next time I’m back at Kinnick Stadium, I’m going to have to pay to get in.”
It was just one more example of how tenuous this season has been, how quickly things change. By Tuesday afternoon, when Ferentz normally speaks to reporters, the narrative had turned completely.
Ferentz started off his comments by talking about the disappointment of not getting to play Saturday.
But Ferentz also found some silver linings among the bleak news. His players will get extra time to concentrate on their final exams now, he said. He was going to even check with the team’s medical staff to see if he could allow the players to return home for a couple of days, or if they need to stay on campus where they have access to daily COVID-19 testing.
“If not, we’ll just keep working ahead like we have been,” Ferentz said.
“(The Michigan game) ain’t gonna happen. Now we move on to the next one. Hopefully, there is a next one.”
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at email@example.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.