Leistikow: Hawkeyes deliver on Ferentz's gutsy call, get finish to feel good about
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Kirk Ferentz insisted he wasn’t having flashbacks Friday to Iowa’s 2014 home meltdown against Nebraska, in which his team inexplicably blew a 17-point second-half lead.
But he did admit that jarring Black Friday overtime loss of four years ago shaped his gutsy decision-making this time around at Kinnick Stadium. A loss like that, Ferentz said, caused him to "look at the world a little differently."
So, on fourth-and-8 from Nebraska’s 37-yard line with 42 seconds remaining in a 28-all game — when just about anyone you ask thought Iowa would be punting the ball away — Ferentz made one of the boldest decisions of his 20 seasons at Iowa.
He went for it.
“I figured they were punting,” Nebraska coach Scott Frost said.
Iowa center Keegan Render was standing on the field, having no idea what the play call would be out of a timeout.
When Iowa safety Jake Gervase saw quarterback Nate Stanley come onto the field, he figured it would be a pooch punt and was getting ready to go back on the field.
That’s what I thought was happening.
But to everyone's surprise, Stanley dropped back and slung a pass through the cold, wet rain toward tight end T.J. Hockenson.
“It was perfect,” Hockenson grinned.
The Mackey Award finalist cradled the ball like it was the most prized catch of his college career. It was a gain of 10 yards. No flags. Hockenson smiled and pointed downfield to signal Iowa's most important first down of 2018.
And two plays later, kicker Miguel Recinos — a former walk-on and fifth-year senior, on Senior Day, no less — split the uprights for a 41-yard field goal from the right hash mark to deliver a 31-28 Hawkeyes win to remember.
What a day.
What a call.
Misfire on any level of the fourth-down play, and Nebraska’s sizzling fourth-quarter offense gets the ball back at the 37-yard line — and the best-case scenario for Iowa would have been overtime.
Flashback 2014, anyone?
“I give coach Ferentz credit,” Frost said. “If they gave us the ball right back there with 40 seconds left, I liked our chances of hitting a couple plays and giving us an opportunity for the field goal.”
Ferentz liked his chances, too ... and no doubt didn't want to give Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez a chance to pull some more of his freshman magic.
“We had a play we felt good about,” Ferentz said.
Stanley was sent out there to size up Nebraska’s defense.
If he got the right look, the play was a go. If he didn't, Iowa would've called timeout and punted.
As Stanley lined up — in shotgun formation, with one running back on each side of him — he looked to his right, where Hockenson was lined up in the slot. He saw a Nebraska blitz coming and safety Antonio Reed playing well off the line of scrimmage.
It was a go, all right.
“We had seen that they had done that before,” Stanley said. “They came out and did what we thought.”
Nebraska rushed seven, leaving Hockenson with only Reed to beat.
Hockenson did more than run a crisp route. He made eye contact with Reed, hoping to get him to play a little looser in coverage.
“The safety was out like 15 yards. I was just hoping he wouldn’t come down,” Hockenson said. “I was just trying to stare him down and see if he would back-pedal. He did a little bit.”
That was enough for Stanley to tuck the ball into Hockenson’s belly before Reed could arrive. It’s a play called by offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz that Iowa had practiced several times this week and, Hockenson said, about 100 times over the past year.
“Brian had the trust in me to make a play,” Hockenson said, “and he had the trust in Stanley.”
The reason Iowa fell short of its goal to win a Big Ten Conference championship was an inability to make plays in the clutch.
This time, they came through.
Beating a 4-8 Nebraska team ultimately doesn’t mask the disappointments against Wisconsin, Penn State, Purdue and Northwestern. But it's an 8-4 regular season, with a chance for a ninth win (maybe in San Diego?), and a regular-season finish to feel good about.
"It was a team win. We fought the full 60," Gervase said. "It felt good to finally finish a close game.
"It's huge. We knew coming into it we would get their best shot. ... 8-4 is a huge difference (from) 7-5. And hopefully we get a good bowl game here in the next month or so."
Even if Ferentz wasn't, I sure was thinking about Black Friday 2014 as this game wore on. That overtime home loss triggered a tumultuous December that led up to the miserable TaxSlayer Bowl.
Now, there are more positives than negatives when reflecting on the 2018 Hawkeyes.
Four years ago, I have no doubt Ferentz would've punted on fourth-and-8.
Friday, he played for the win — instead of playing not to lose.
And, ultimately, his players made him look good.
"There's so much precision, so much detail that goes into a play like that," Ferentz said. "... Then sometimes you get (the defensive look), sometimes you don't. We got it, pulled the trigger. Those guys did a great job. That's the difference between winning and losing."
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.