Leistikow: Hawkeye football needed a win like this

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Editor's Note: Nebraska head coach Mike Riley was fired after this story was originally published. 

LINCOLN, Neb. — For as long as he is Iowa’s football coach, the 2014 Nebraska game at Kinnick Stadium will always stick with Kirk Ferentz: An overtime loss after blowing a 24-7 lead with an assortment of un-Iowa-like mistakes.

That also was the game that prompted Nebraska to fire then-coach Bo Pelini, even after a win, because in the words of then-athletic director Shawn Eichorst: “I had to take into account where Iowa is as a program.”

My, how things have changed since.

Iowa’s 56-14 rout of Nebraska on Friday at Memorial Stadium saved one program from a possible tailspin, while hurtling the other into a deeper one.

Iowa tight end Noah Fant (87) and the Iowa Hawkeyes football team celebrate after a 56-14 win over Nebraska on Friday, Nov. 24, 2017, at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb.

Winning — especially the way they did it — was essential for the Hawkeyes before an announced crowd of 90,046.

They’re now 7-5 and coming off a resounding win over a rival, instead of 6-6 and a fan base — and maybe a locker room — coming face to face with extreme apathy.

“If we hadn’t won today, it would have been quite a challenge,” Ferentz said. “The entire month would’ve been. This one doesn’t assure us anything moving forward, but it certainly puts everyone in a better place mentally.”

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In 2014, the "Fire Ferentz" crowd was as loud as ever. That was in part because of the team finishing the regular season on such a sour note.

Friday, a dominant Iowa win capped a 10-2 stretch in trophy games since Eichorst’s famous last words and reminded us that (even amid the bumps in 2017) Ferentz knows what he's doing in Iowa City.

“It’s huge, to be able to keep spirits high,” said sophomore quarterback Nate Stanley, whose 68-yard touchdown pass to Omaha native Noah Fant capped a 28-0 third-quarter scoring run and gave Iowa an emphatic 42-14 lead. “To be able to have a game like this and a win like this, is crucial for us to have the right mindset going into those four weeks.”

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That’s right, a bowl game is next. Probably the Music City (in Nashville) or Pinstripe (in New York City). We’ll find out for sure next Sunday.

It was already top of mind for senior guard Sean Welsh that finishing 8-5 was of high importance — the Hawkeye program has lost five straight bowl games, the last win coming in the 2010 Insight.

“It’s been what, seven years?” Welsh said. “It’s time to do it.”

But before getting worried about a late-December game, this was a day to cherish and celebrate, even if the Cornhusker program is a far cry from its 1990s glory days.

From freshman to senior, this was a team win.

That’s a big statement right there, after back-to-back listless performances in losses to Wisconsin and Purdue.

The Hawkeyes combined for 324 yards in those games.

Friday, they gained a season-high 505. 

“Coming off the field last Saturday and Sunday was tough,” Ferentz said. “Our guys stayed together.”

True freshmen were everywhere Friday.

Geno Stone was thrown in at safety after Miles Taylor’s first-quarter injury and made eight tackles. Ihmir Smith-Marsette delivered explosion in the return game to start the second half. Matt Hankins performed well in his first career start at cornerback. Ivory Kelly-Martin uncorked a 57-yard run (and scored a TD) in the fourth quarter.

But give special credit in this one to Hawkeye seniors, who played with pride and determination a week after admitting they were flat. Senior linebackers Josey Jewell and Ben Niemann had interceptions of Tanner Lee. Senior Nathan Bazata stuffed an early fake field-goal attempt. Senior Akrum Wadley scored three touchdowns; senior James Butler scored his first as a Hawkeye.

“There was a lot of motivation getting back up on our feet,” Bazata said. “We took one in the chin last week.”

No senior was more emblematic of Friday’s win than the undersized defensive tackle who grew up a Huskers fan in Howells, Nebraska.

Bazata was the first to sprint over and grab the Heroes Trophy, hoisting it to show the few remaining fans in Memorial Stadium when the game was over.

Word has it he broke down after entering the postgame locker room. He stopped short of details, but it's safe to say this one meant a lot to the third-year starter.

“Just got a little emotional there, hanging that many points on them,” Bazata said, “and just doing a good job executing all day. And I just thanked Coach Ferentz for taking a chance on me.”

Ferentz, in his postgame remarks, thanked the unselfishness of Bazata and the other 17 seniors playing their final regular-season games as Hawkeyes.

“I’m really proud of our guys,” Ferentz said, “but mostly, I’m really happy for them.”

The same can’t be said at Nebraska, which is going to be making another coaching change after Mike Riley’s teams were outscored by the Hawkeyes, 96-24, over the past two seasons.

So, taking account of where Iowa is as a program today?

Feeling pretty good.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.