Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz is prepping his 7-4 Hawkeyes for 4-7 Nebraska. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central
Nebraska is coming to Kinnick Stadium this week with more swagger than you’d ordinarily get from a 4-7 football team.
“I can’t wait to beat Iowa," Huskers offensive lineman Jerald Foster said after their 9-6 win against Michigan State. "I really can’t.”
Talented Nebraska freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez on Monday was lamenting with reporters in Lincoln that things could have been so much different this season if not for that 0-6 start.
“But it is what it is,” he said, “and we have another opportunity this week to play another good team and show people this is who we are now.”
This is no doubt a game that carries a lot of meaning for Nebraska and first-year coach Scott Frost, who boldly said at Big Ten Conference media days: "People better get us now, because we’re going to keep getting better."
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And this game should carry as much if not more meaning for 7-4 Iowa.
Although the Hawkeyes’ Big Ten Conference championship dreams died a few weeks ago, there are a lot of reasons they need to win Friday’s 11 a.m., Fox-televised game.
I focused on five of them.
1. Keep a nine-win season alive.
To the Iowa fan base, there’s a big difference in finishing 9-4 versus 8-5. The seven- and eight-win seasons are fine, but they’re not the goal and are becoming stale.
The players feel that difference, too.
“(Going) 7-5 looks a lot worse than 8-4," junior defensive end Anthony Nelson said. "We’re just going to do whatever we can to win on Friday and get No. 8. That’s enough motivation for us.”
Since Kirk Ferentz’s lone major bowl win (the 2010 Orange), only the 2015 team has topped the eight-win mark. He has gone 12-2 once, 8-5 four times, 7-6 twice and 4-8 once in those eight years. Losing to Nebraska would clinch him going 1-for-his-last-9 in breaking eight.
Interestingly, there's only been one nine-win team in the 19-year Ferentz era, and it's a group the coaching staff internally revered: 2008. That tight-knit team rebounded from four in-season close losses to finish strong — and set the stage for that 11-win 2009 season.
A nine-win season would make for an upbeat off-season.
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2. Earn a chance for that signature win.
Beat Nebraska, and improve your spot in the bowl-game pecking order. An 8-4 Iowa team would be a prime candidate for the Holiday Bowl, a destination that would be met with a warm San Diego embrace from Hawkeye fans and administrators. Even the Citrus or Outback bowls can’t be ruled out, especially if Penn State finishes 9-3 and gets elevated into a New Year’s Six game.
Hawkeye players know they missed an opportunity this season, especially with repeated openings on the Big Ten West title path. They feel they should’ve won the division, but they know they didn’t come through in the clutch when it counted.
Drawing a needle-moving bowl (or opponent) is unlikely with a 7-5 finish. But at 8-4 … maybe the Hawkeyes draw a big-brand program like Washington (as CBS’ Jerry Palm has projected Iowa to face in the Holiday). Opponents like Stanford, Oregon, Texas A&M and Auburn (all four-loss teams) are also on the table.
3. Keep the Huskers under your boot.
One of the reasons Nebraska is gunning for Iowa? Hawkeyes 124, Cornhuskers 44 — the combined score in the last three meetings in this series.
There are all kinds of stature incentives for the Hawkeyes to make it four in a row against their neighbors to the west.
An Iowa win would help on the recruiting trail: An 8-4 Iowa sure looks a lot healthier than a 4-8 Nebraska. But if it’s 7-5 Iowa versus 5-7 Nebraska — there’s one program trending down, the other trending up.
If Nebraska wins, it’ll have more West Division victories (three) than Iowa (two), and both will have gone 4-5 in conference play.
4. Make December tolerable.
The fan angst will be fierce if the Hawkeyes turn a 6-1 start into a 7-5 finish. It’ll feel like 2014 all over again — the last time Nebraska beat Iowa, and anti-Ferentz sentiment was at some of its highest levels.
Win this one, and the next four to five weeks will be a lot more enjoyable for anyone with a rooting interest for Iowa football — the players, the coaches and the fans. You don't want to spend your holiday parties discussing, "What's wrong with Iowa football?"
“We want to put our best foot forward this week," said senior defensive end Parker Hesse, who will make his fourth start against Nebraska. "We want to walk out of Kinnick knowing we played our best game.”
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5. And finally: Do it for the seniors.
The Hawkeyes delivered one of their worst performances of the 2017 season on Senior Day — a 24-15 home loss to Purdue.
In 2016, which had its own frustrations after high expectations, a senior class that included C.J. Beathard, Desmond King and George Kittle put a beating on the nine-win Huskers, 40-10, in Iowa City. The most memorable snapshot from that game was Kittle hoisting the Heroes Trophy onto his right shoulder and hollering his jubilation in front of the home fans.
If the Hawkeyes can replicate that finish Friday, it'd be the kind of moment Iowa-born program mainstays like Hesse, Jake Gervase, Matt Nelson and Keegan Render will never forget.
“It’s huge," junior quarterback Nate Stanley said. "They don’t deserve anything else than to go out with a win. They’ve done a great job at being leaders for this team and show everybody the right way to go about doing things.”
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.