IOWA CITY, Ia. — For most of the Kirk Ferentz era at Iowa, the September hiccup or slip-up was an almost annual and unwelcome rite of passage.
Yet here his 2019 Hawkeyes stand, a Saturday win against Middle Tennessee State away from an undefeated opening month.
Longtime Hawkeye fans can rattle off plenty of befuddling early-season performances in the past two decades.
Go back to 2004, Iowa’s last Big Ten Conference championship season, and you can find a big ol' desert dud — 44-6 at Arizona State in one of the worst performances of any Ferentz-coached team. The 2002 regular season’s lone stain was a Sept. 14 home loss to Iowa State, in which a 17-point second-half lead was squandered to a rival.
Among others that stick out like a sore thumb: 2012 against Central Michigan; 2013 against Northern Illinois; 2014 against an Iowa State team that would go 2-10; and 2016 against FCS stalwart North Dakota State.
All of those games were at Kinnick Stadium.
On that note, Ferentz this week educated his team on a slightly different history lesson that goes back a decade. His 2019 Hawkeyes learned about the 2009 team that had to block two field goals to survive Northern Iowa in the season opener and four weeks later staved off Arkansas State by a mere three points.
That 2009 team, which had star power (like this year’s team does) and is credited with Ferentz’s only high-major bowl win in 20 seasons, showed it was susceptible to showing up dead as a doornail some Saturdays.
“They talked about how we went onto the Orange Bowl and won that,” junior safety Geno Stone explained. “You can’t take these teams lightly. They’re always going to compete with you. They’re a Division I school, too.”
Ferentz on Tuesday called that 2009 UNI game a “miracle” finish. The 21st-year Hawkeye coach certainly wants to avoid any such high-wire acts to beat 24-point underdog Middle Tennessee State at 11 a.m. Saturday.
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Ferentz continued his history lesson this week, pointing out parallels between a plucky Arkansas State program in 2009 and this well-coached Middle Tennessee outfit with a playmaking quarterback.
“The message is if you're not doing your best internally, you're going to be involved in many games like that,” Ferentz said. “You can come out on the short end; and we should have against UNI.”
To Ferentz’s credit, Iowa has quietly been a much better September football team the past five seasons. A clutch 4-0 start in 2015 (Marshall Koehn's 57-yard, walk-off field goal included) would become a 12-0 regular season.
I asked Ferentz about this September uptick and, as you might imagine, he couldn't get past the North Dakota State slip-up in 2016. Coaches always remember the losses.
That one was fresh on the mind of current quarterback Nate Stanley. He got meaningful snaps when starter C.J. Beathard left briefly with an injured shoulder in that 23-21 shocker. Iowa went from Big Ten West favorites to Big Ten flops.
“We have a great example of North Dakota State,” Stanley said. “We know that people get beat all the time when they overlook opponents.”
But really, over the past five seasons, the North Dakota State game is the exception. Even in 2017 and 2018 September setbacks — last-minute home losses to Penn State and Wisconsin — Iowa hardly showed up flat.
September results, in my observation, often reflect the state of the program.
A culture reboot prior to the 2015 season — which included switching to morning practices and changing the mandated off day from Monday to Thursday — seemed to increase the urgency and tempo of game weeks. It’s certainly notable that Iowa is 5-0 against Iowa State in this span, too — four of those games were decided late in the fourth quarter.
I also would give a tip of the cap of Iowa’s recent strong September play to Stanley.
He’s 20-9 overall as an Iowa starter, including an impressive 10-0 in nonconference games. The Hawkeyes’ senior quarterback is locked in and has served as a great example for teammates who don’t want to be the next (unfortunate) history lesson.
“It just gets back to everybody involved taking the responsibility,” Ferentz said, “and making sure that they are doing what they are supposed to do to give ourselves a chance to be successful.”
A good sign for the program and 2019 fortunes would be a team that comes out against the Blue Raiders and efficiently and resoundingly takes care of business. If the Hawkeyes do, they’ll be just the third Ferentz-coached team since 2002 to go unbeaten in September.
The 2009 Hawkeyes did it, somehow.
The 2015 Hawkeyes followed.
We know how those seasons eventually turned out.
Is 2019 next?
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.