Leistikow: Iowa Hawkeyes can become playoff dark horse with upset over Penn State

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — On Oct. 26, 2002, a one-loss Iowa football team went into Michigan Stadium and whipped the eighth-ranked Wolverines, 34-9. It remains one of the most significant and memorable road wins of the Kirk Ferentz era.

Exactly 16 years and one day later, a one-loss Iowa team can make a similar statement against a higher-ranked opponent in one of college football’s most vaunted venues.

It’s No. 18 Iowa at No. 16 Penn State, with a crowd of 106,000-plus expected for Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. CT, ESPN-televised game at Beaver Stadium.

Parker Hesse (40) and the Hawkeyes get ready to take the field against Maryland before their 23-0 home win. This week, Iowa will play in front of 106,000-plus fans at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pennsylvania.

“If we come ready to go — offense, defense, special teams,” senior free safety Jake Gervase said, “it’s going to be a fun day.”

The 6-1 Hawkeyes are confident for a reason.

Only three previous Ferentz-coached teams — the ones in 2002, 2009 and 2015 — started 6-1 or better. Each of those teams went on to win at least 11 games and collectively account for Ferentz’s three BCS bowl appearances.

“If we can follow up like those three teams did, that’d be great,” Ferentz said Tuesday. “That’s the challenge in front of us.”

Only one of those three special teams, though, had exactly a 6-1 mark through seven games.

You guessed it: 2002.

The comparisons to that magical season, which ended with nearly 50,000 Hawkeye fans flocking to the Orange Bowl in Miami, are growing increasingly credible.

The 2002 Hawkeyes could run the ball and pass it at a high level. They had a star-studded defensive line. And they kept gaining steam after a bitter early-season home loss to a program rival.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

In 2002, it was one bad third quarter that turned a 24-7 lead against Iowa State into a 36-31, Week 3 defeat.

In 2018, it was two special-teams gaffes that led to a 28-17 loss to Wisconsin on Sept. 22 at Kinnick Stadium, a game that Iowa led until the final minute.

“I don’t know if anything changed (after that loss),” offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs said. “We just knew where we stood in that game.”

Translation: The better team, at least in the Hawkeyes’ minds, lost that night.

Probably the way the 2002 team felt after losing to Iowa State.

And so far, the response from these Hawkeyes appears to be on the same track as it was in 2002.

Next, they need that signature win.

Beating Penn State (5-2, with late losses to Ohio State and Michigan State) in Happy Valley certainly would qualify. The Hawkeyes are 6½-point underdogs.

Parker Hesse, the only current Hawkeye to start on that 2015 team that started 12-0 and went to the Rose Bowl, is the quintessential team leader. Ferentz on Tuesday unofficially crowned him the team’s MVP to date.

Hesse has seen things come together for one of Ferentz's special seasons; he's also endured early-season struggles that swiped the dreams of the 2016 and 2017 teams.

He knows how precious it is, to get to this point of the season and still have a chance to be something great. The players believe they can be, on the heels of three straight Big Ten wins by an average margin of 22 points.

"Everyone around here realizes the potential we have. We could be a really good team,” Hesse said. “I think that has been focusing us each and every day, making sure we prepare to the best of our abilities.”

He continued.

“We take every meeting, every practice, every lift as serious as we can. Because we know this is an opportunity that not many people get — to be a really good football team at the end of the year.”

The 2002 offense remains the gold standard of the Ferentz era. That unit, led by Heisman Trophy runner-up Brad Banks, averaged 37.2 points per game. No Hawkeye team since has topped 30.9.

Iowa’s scoring average this year is at 30.6, with some of the Big Ten’s worst defenses coming up in November.

Sixteen years ago, Iowa went into Ann Arbor with a quiet confidence — and surgically dismantled a college football blue-blood before 111,496 stunned fans.

One man’s opinion: That was the day when Iowa football under Ferentz officially arrived on the national radar. It served as a launching point for back-to-back-to-back national top-10 finishes.

Flash forward 16 years (and one day).

And here’s a major chance for the Hawkeye program to (re)assert itself as a national player.

“It’s a huge opportunity for us," quarterback Nate Stanley said, "to go out and show the amount and quality of work that we’ve put in. We work all year for 12 opportunities.”

Win this one, and “IOWA” will be prominent in the first College Football Playoff rankings that come out Tuesday. Yes, a 7-1 Iowa would be a playoff dark horse — with major momentum toward taking back the Big Ten’s West Division.

Lose this one, and a November scramble to max out at 9-3 or 10-2 doesn’t have the same buzz.

“It’s an awesome opportunity for this team to keep growing,” Gervase said, “(and) keep going in the direction we want to go.”

It’s probably fitting to close this with some final words from Hesse, as he spoke about the anticipation of trying to pull the upset in front of 100,000-plus fans.

“You like to go in and kind of embrace that villain role,” he said, “and (say), 'We’re going to come in, and we’re going to steal one from you.'"

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.