Leistikow: What is the ceiling for this talented Iowa football team? A Big Ten title
CHICAGO — There was a reason Kirk Ferentz, at this week’s Big Ten Conference football media days, unearthed from his steel-trap mind a simple bootleg pass to tight end T.J. Hockenson that occurred in the fourth quarter of Iowa’s Outback Bowl victory against Mississippi State.
“Catching a ball for a 1-yard completion and running 18 yards or whatever he ran; broke about four tackles,” Ferentz said of what was actually a self-made 20-yard gain as Iowa desperately tried to move the ball for insurance points in a two-point game. “Those little plays there, just somebody doing something special … that’s what it takes to be successful.”
There’s been a good amount of talk this week in the Hilton Chicago about what it’ll take to win the increasingly competitive Big Ten West.
But, for Iowa, maybe a better question is: What about winning the whole darn Big Ten?
After all, that is the program’s No. 1 stated goal: winning a Big Ten championship.
A 12-0 regular season and division title in 2015 was (very) nice. But being the league’s top dog hasn’t happened for Ferentz and the Hawkeyes since 2004.
What are the odds of ending the drought, 15 years later?
Las Vegas would tell you they're about 20 to 1.
But making the long shot a realistic one takes us back to Ferentz's Hockenson answer.
Making clutch plays in close games was Ferentz’s over-arching explanation of what is currently separating Iowa from the upper echelon in the Big Ten.
After all, his Hawkeyes have recently proven to be successful and competitive against the Big Ten’s best.
They led Michigan State until the final minute of the 2015 Big Ten title game. They beat Michigan in 2016. They pushed Penn State to the last play in 2017, then famously shellacked Ohio State six weeks later.
And in 2018, Iowa was good. Very good. But it couldn't finish games consistently.
Instead of Nick Niemann falling behind in coverage against Wisconsin in the final minute, he needs to break up the pass.
Instead of Nate Stanley throwing an interception on first-and-goal at Penn State, he needs to tuck the ball away.
“You’re always going to have some adversity during a game,” Stanley said. “Just being able to minimize that adversity, I think, is the biggest part to making that next jump.”
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Iowa did make clutch plays in its final two games of 2018, which led to a pretty satisfying 9-4 record and the program's second top-25 finish in nine years.
Against Nebraska, Hockenson (there’s that name again) caught a 10-yard bullet from Stanley on fourth-and-8 to set up Miguel Recinos’ walk-off field goal.
Against Mississippi State, there were countless moments where players — Stanley, Nick Easley, A.J. Epenesa, Chauncey Golston, Jake Gervase, Hockenson — made the big play instead of missing it.
Back to the Hockenson 20-yard catch and run. That set up an Iowa field goal, which meant Mississippi State needed a touchdown to win it. The Hawkeyes’ defense held up, and the players rejoiced.
“I just brought that illustration up because it wasn’t a marquee play, necessarily,” Ferentz said, “but it was huge in terms of momentum and keeping our defense off the field. Changing field position, all those kinds of things.”
Winning a Big Ten title is tougher now than it was in 2002 and 2004 — the last two times Iowa could call itself a league champion. Back then, there were 11 teams and shared titles counted, too.
Now, there’s one game to decide one champion in Indianapolis in early December.
I asked Stanley, the senior quarterback and likely three-time captain, if he thought Iowa could bring home a championship this year.
The reserved signal-caller didn’t hesitate.
“Definitely,” he said. “I do.”
He continued with an answer that should rev up Hawkeye fans for the Aug. 31 opener.
“Just the work that we’ve put in. The type of guys we have on this team,” Stanley said. “We have plenty of talent on this team to compete against anyone else in the Big Ten. What’s going to separate us is the competitive spirit and attitude we’re going to bring every single day.
“I’m really confident in how our workouts have gone so far this summer, that we’re all on the right track. That we’re all on the same page with our goals and what we want to do.”
Speaking of same pages, this year’s team book is called “The Culture Code,” by Daniel Coyle. It sounds like it’s been a unifying project, much like “The Slight Edge” was for Iowa’s unlikely 2015 run.
"You can win with talent, or you can win with teamwork,” Ferentz explained. “If you’ve got talent and teamwork, that’s a pretty good combination. … You need those two things if you’re going to do something significant.”
Something significant? How about that first Big Ten title since 2004?
There are some parallels. That Iowa team was coming off an Outback Bowl win and had lost significant talent to the NFL (such as Robert Gallery and Bob Sanders).
The 2019 Hawkeyes aren't going to win any games in July. But they could lose them if they don't stay the course.
“Coach Ferentz talks about operating at a championship level," running back Toren Young said. "We can’t overlook anything. Our strength and conditioning. Our film work. The way we eat. The way we sleep. I feel like we’re taking steps in the right direction.”
Iowa has strong pieces. This isn't a rebuilding team like next year's could be.
Sure, Michigan and Ohio State are supposed to be good in the East, but neither is unbeatable. The Hawkeyes have recently proven that.
It's OK to think big in July. A lot of teams here are optimistic. Iowa, at least, knows the formula.
"For us, historically, we have to be able to win close games. And then I think bigger and more importantly, the bigger picture, we have to really be improvement-driven," Ferentz said. "... If our players understand that and we do a good job as coaches, we understand that, then at least we give ourselves a chance to maybe be competitive when it all counts."
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.