Leistikow: Hawkeyes' 12 games of Christmas, in their words
IOWA CITY, Ia. — In college football, Christmas presents are doled out based on merit.
There are lumps of no-bowl coal under the trees at Michigan State, Notre Dame and Oregon.
From the campuses of Washington to Western Michigan to Penn State, the wrapped packages contain New Year’s Six surprises.
At Iowa in 2016, the reward was somewhere in between. There were no divisional or Big Ten Conference championship trophies, the preseason stated team goal. But the Hawkeyes’ stocking did contain a $3.1 million gift card, good for an all-expenses-paid trip to compete in the Jan. 2 Outback Bowl against Florida, winner of the SEC East Division.
“The thing about this team that I appreciated so much — and I think all of us as coaches do — is their ability to stay together," head coach Kirk Ferentz says. "Their ability to keep pushing forward."
The 8-4 season certainly came with ups and downs, confidence and doubt, frustration and elation.
Here’s a look at the Hawkeyes’ 12 Games of Christmas:
Miami of Ohio (Win; 1-0)
The pregame narrative: Iowa is widely considered Big Ten West favorites, and the opener was an anticipated stage for an offense that returned an all-conference quarterback (C.J. Beathard), its leading receiver (Matt VandeBerg), five linemen with starting experience and a tight end (George Kittle) that was discussed as becoming one of the program greats. “The offense can be great,” Beathard said. “We’ve got a lot of weapons here: running backs, receivers, tight ends, a great offensive line. It’s just a matter of how we stack plays together, how we stack drives together.”
What happened: The Hawkeyes win, 45-21, but concerns immediately shift to a run defense that allowed the RedHawks to churn out consistent yardage.
The postgame narrative: The offense hummed, and the defense would’ve been better if heart-and-soul linebacker Josey Jewell hadn’t been ejected for targeting a few plays into the first quarter.
In their words: “If we’re going to look for excuses, it’s not going to take us very far. I think we’ll be better with (Jewell) in there. But what if he’s not this week? We’ve got to keep pushing, and that’s the challenge.” — Ferentz
Iowa State (W; 2-0)
The pregame narrative: A contract extension that would pay Ferentz $49.5 million plus bonuses for 10 years through the 2025 season steals the early-week headlines. Athletic director Gary Barta says of the decision: “Signing a long-term contract has risk to it. But so does not signing a long-term contract.” As the game nears, talk of cornerback Desmond King shadowing Cyclone receiver Allen Lazard is the main story line.
What happened: Iowa trounces its rival, 42-3. King doesn’t actually shadow Lazard much at all (“April Fool’s,” he says afterward). The Hawkeyes deliver a complete performance to back up their No. 10 national ranking. VandeBerg follows his best game as a Hawkeye (eight touches, 154 yards) with a still-in-pads proposal to his girlfriend. She says yes.
The postgame narrative: The Hawkeyes are rolling. Some key offensive-line injuries end up being afterthoughts on a fun night. Center James Daniels doesn’t play because of a knee injury, and guard Sean Welsh leaves with an ankle sprain.
In their words: “It’s like big brother, little brother. This game is always a hard, tough game. We came out (and) were the better team today." — Iowa RB Akrum Wadley
North Dakota State (L; 2-1)
The pregame narrative: The Hawkeyes are flying high at 2-0, but wary of the five-time defending FCS champion Bison. “They play like a Big Ten team,” Beathard says. “Tough, physical, well-coached.” Iowa looks to avoid the curse of a double-digit favorite — having suffered 10 straight-up losses from that position since 2006.
What happened: How true Beathard’s pregame words would ring. The Hawkeyes are mauled in the trenches, outrushed 239-34, and suffer a 23-21 home loss as the Bison convert a last-second field goal.
The postgame narrative: The better team won. Concerns on Iowa’s offensive line (Daniels and Welsh didn’t play; a bigger story than it seemed at the time) were overshadowed by the defensive line’s inability to stack up an FCS running attack. Is this a one-off performance or a systemic flaw?
In their words: “I feel like we didn’t get our proper fits. That’s why the back was able to break through for five-plus yards every time. I don’t think we were really focused on our key assignments today.” — DT Jaleel Johnson
Rutgers (W; 3-1, 1-0 Big Ten)
The pregame narrative: Questions about whether Iowa has the correct personnel on defense reach a fever pitch. Inconsistency at linebacker and safety are under the hottest microscope. But the drumbeat message from Hawkeye camp is that it’s the “little things” need fixing. “I don’t think there’s going to be any changes at all,” King says. “Our game plan is perfectly fine. We’ve just got to be ready to play.”
What happened: Iowa doesn’t win this ugly game without clutch individual performances on defense. Josey Jewell’s one-man goal-line stand turns the tables in a 14-7 win, and Brandon Snyder’s forced-fumble-and-recovery sets up Wadley’s winning score.
The postgame narrative: After what happened the previous week, a road win’s a road win. But there’s evidence building that the defensive leaks shown against North Dakota State weren’t an anomaly.
In their words: “The real issue is fundamentals. We’ve had too many instances, in my opinion, where not everybody gets the call. We have little intricate calls that we make up front. That’s good, unless everybody’s not on the same page and then you open up a seam. And they hit a couple of those today.” — Ferentz
Northwestern (L; 3-2, 1-1)
The pregame narrative: An offense already struggling loses its key receiver. VandeBerg’s broken left foot suffered in a Monday practice knocks him out for the season. The “Next Man In” message is steady from the top. “This is hardly a crisis stage," Ferentz says. "We're all really sorry that Matt got hurt, don't get me wrong, I'm not minimizing that. But hey, we're going to play. We've got to play.”
What happened: Iowa suffers a second jarring home defeat as a double-digit favorite in 15 days, 38-31. Doubts are creeping in everywhere after Northwestern — which scored seven points in a home loss to FCS Illinois State — gets 171 rushing yards from Justin Jackson and three touchdown catches from Austin Carr. King says, “They really out-coached us in the passing game."
The postgame narrative: Undisciplined play is spiraling out of control. A personal foul on Johnson for mouthing off keys a Northwestern touchdown drive in the fourth quarter. Mental errors rekindle memories of the 2010 season going down the tubes on a Wisconsin fake punt. Is this season similarly lost already?
In their words: “That goes perfectly under discipline — understanding what you can or can’t do. Knowing your role. And really, you know, how to act on the football field.” — Jewell, on Johnson’s 15-yard penalty
Minnesota (W; 4-2, 2-1)
The pregame narrative: Speculation starts to mount about the health of Beathard. BTN analyst Stanley Jackson wonders about that and Beathard’s confidence after being sacked six times against Northwestern. “That changes his entire process,” Jackson says. “We call that seeing ghosts.” The matchup at Minnesota centers around fifth-year quarterbacks Beathard and Mitch Leidner.
What happened: The Hawkeyes play textbook, fundamental defense, holding Minnesota 29 points below its scoring average. Greg Mabin breaks up a fourth-down pass in the end zone to seal a 14-7 road win. Up front, a line shuffle that moved Boone Myers to left tackle and Ike Boettger to left guard helps the Hawkeyes’ pass protection and springs Wadley’s 54-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown run. “I know they got more angry,” Wadley says of the line, “and I like them when they’re angry.”
The postgame narrative: A victory for a program that desperately needed one. Maybe the defense isn’t dead yet. The offense could’ve been better, but at least it moved the chains. Baby steps all around.
In their words: “We were just way better today. Not perfect, but better.” — Snyder
Purdue (W; 5-2, 3-1)
The pregame narrative: The Hawkeyes approach the most winnable remaining game on the schedule with wariness, as Purdue is coming off an overtime road win at Illinois.
What happened: Ready, Set … AkShun. The duo of Wadley and LeShun Daniels Jr. prance across the Ross-Ade Stadium grass for a combined 326 rushing yards, and it’s Boilers coach Darrell Hazell that is sucked down a career sinkhole. A day after Iowa’s 49-35 win that wasn’t that close, Hazell is fired.
The postgame narrative: Iowa’s offense, lost since the Iowa State game, is back on track. Emblematic of the difference, Keegan Render’s performance in his second career start at guard (with Cole Croston out) provides optimism, but the severity of in-game injuries to Kittle and Myers are unclear. With back-to-back road wins, the Hawkeyes’ season has some life entering the difficult, finishing stretch.
RELATED: Render gets his shot to shine
In their words: “Six weeks to play five games. How much can you move the needle forward? I think at least these last two weeks, we’ve done that. Which I’m happy about.” — Ferentz
Wisconsin (L; 5-3, 3-2)
The pregame narrative: The Big Ten West title travels through Kinnick Stadium. With the battle-tested, 10th-ranked Badgers coming to down, it’s time to see what this 5-2 Iowa team is really made of. “It’s way too premature to focus on a conference race,” Ferentz says. “What we need to do is focus on getting better, and we ... have our stiffest test of the season looking at us.”
What happened: Wisconsin compiled 423 yards, 37 minutes of possession time and didn’t commit a penalty in a 17-9 win. The Badgers took control of the West Division by keeping Iowa out of the end zone.
The postgame narrative: The schemes of offensive coordinator Greg Davis are under fire after a stale performance. Wadley is frustrated with the lack of aggression in play-calling and the overall disconnect. Ferentz also draws criticism for his late decision to, down eight points from Wisconsin’s red zone, try a Keith Duncan field-goal attempt — which missed.
In their words: “I don’t think it’s personnel. We definitely have the guys that are capable. Just need to execute. … We need all 11 guys on the same page. You just can’t have one guy here or there.” — Receiver Riley McCarron
RECRUITING: A look at Iowa's Christmas wish list
Penn State (L; 5-4, 3-3)
The pregame narrative: Perhaps as an attempt to hit the “reset” button, Ferentz compares this season to 2008 — one that suffered early-season heartache to enter the bye week 5-3 before finishing strong in November.
What happened: A 41-14 white-washing. Penn State throttled Iowa with 599 yards of offense, second-most ever against a Ferentz-coached Hawkeye team. Iowa’s offense totaled 234 yards on 52 snaps. Penn State gained 234 alone on just five big plays in the rout. “Just didn’t show up,” Kittle says. “I don’t know how you don’t show up. You get 12 shots. It hurts.”
The postgame narrative: Iowa quit. That’s what star Penn State running back Saquon Barkley inferred in his postgame remarks. Hawkeye fans were left to wonder just how ugly the next week against 9-0 Michigan — a team that whipped Penn State, 49-10 — could get.
In their words: “There’s nobody in our locker room who’s not hurting right now. It’s not the standard, it never will be the standard. … I’m surprised. I thought we’d come in here and compete well. I thought we’d have a chance to win the football game.” — Ferentz
Michigan (W; 6-4, 4-3)
The pregame narrative: Their status as a three-touchdown underdog has players fielding questions about belief. Linebacker Ben Niemann offers this to fans: “Don’t give up on us. We’re still fighting. Everybody in this program? We’re still working. We haven’t given up. We want to finish this thing strong. We would love to have their support.”
What happened: A sellout crowd gets its first injection of real hope when Johnson stuffs Michigan’s De’Veon Smith for a second-quarter safety. The Wolverines were on the ropes from there, and a spectacular defensive performance teamed with Wadley’s ankle-breaking runs (23 carries, 115 yards) put Iowa in position to win. Duncan’s 33-yard field goal as time expires send the Kinnick fans streaming onto the field for the first time in eight years with a 14-13 victory.
The postgame narrative: How did this happen? Doesn’t matter, but it did. A week after having its heart questioned by an opponent, the Hawkeyes left no doubt in a plucky, spirited, all-out effort. A star was nationally revealed in Wadley, and energy from new faces Anthony Gair and Manny Rugamba in Iowa’s secondary bring cautious optimism back into the program.
In their words: "We knew we had an opportunity. And we believed we could do it." — King
Illinois (W; 7-4, 5-3)
The pregame narrative: Trap game. That was the drumbeat talk all week from Ferentz and Hawkeye players. How would they reload after an emotional home win with another big game (home vs. Nebraska) on the horizon?
What happened: Even the opening coin flip became a story. The Hawkeyes chose to take the strong, cold wind at their backs in the first and third quarters, and that decision — combined with a shutdown, shutout performance by the Jewell-led defense — leads to a 28-0 Iowa victory and one of the oddest things ever: Illinois never kicked off.
The postgame narrative: The defense is rounding into form, and players are beginning to talk openly about how they challenged themselves after Barkley’s comments in the Penn State postgame. “Just came together, and told ourselves that can’t happen anymore,” Bo Bower says after Iowa’s first Big Ten shutout since 2009. “Some teams can go down the drain; some teams can pick themselves up.”
Nebraska (W; 8-4, 6-3)
The pregame narrative: Is Iowa-Nebraska a rivalry yet? Neither program seems to think so, but this perceived coin-toss game is about two things: Can the Hawkeyes carry their soaring momentum to a big finish, and how effective can injured Huskers quarterback Tommy Armstrong be?
What happened: Zip, zoom, boom. On back-to-back Iowa plays from scrimmage, Wadley runs 75 yards for a touchdown and Beathard finds McCarron for a back-breaking 77-yard TD pass, and the Hawkeyes bury the Huskers in an unexpected romp. Iowa needs to complete only 10 passes to put up a 40-10 rout, with Daniels going for 158 rushing yards on 29 carries and topping the 1,000 mark. Meanwhile, Armstrong is held to 13 of 35 passing for 125 yards. Says Johnson: “We played our best football these last three weeks.”
The postgame narrative: This season wasn’t so bad after all. In fact, it’s pretty satisfying. Three trophy wins out of four, including a 39-point rout of an in-state rival and the most complete game of the season in the Black Friday finale. The resounding Nebraska win ultimately gets Iowa the nod for the Outback Bowl, while the 9-3 Huskers settle for the Music City Bowl.
In their words: “It just shows the fight and toughness we have as a team. It really puts an exclamation point on the season.” — Beathard
NFL DRAFT: What experts are saying about Iowa players
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.