Unless your university operates in the historic college-football orbits of Alabama, Ohio State, Notre Dame or Michigan, program-changing opportunity games are rare and difficult to come by.
Even if a Division I head coach does everything right, he might only get a couple of chances over the course of a career to take a defining, giant step.
In the fourth week of October 2002, Kirk Ferentz’s fourth Iowa team had given itself such a chance.
The buzz in Iowa City was palpable. A team that three years earlier went 1-10 was rebuilding toward something big. Ferentz’s Hawkeyes were 4-0 in Big Ten Conference play, ranked 14th nationally and headed to the Big House in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to battle the eighth-ranked Wolverines.
A flock of enthused Hawkeye fans had made the seven-hour drive northeast for an overcast Saturday morning at Michigan Stadium. They were ready to make their presence known. So was an entire Iowa roster that had been building toward this day.
“We were talking about it in the locker room before the game,” says Nate Kaeding, the Lou Groza Award-winning kicker for the 2002 Hawkeyes. “Saying, ‘Hey, we’ve accomplished a lot.' But if we go out here and play our kind of football and win this, then it’s like, 'Holy cow. We’ve got something really special on our hands.'”
Brad Banks, the senior quarterback who would finish runner-up in the 2002 Heisman Trophy voting, recalls a united team driven by atonement for five close losses a year earlier (including to Michigan).
It was time to make a statement of arrival in perhaps college football’s most legendary venue.
“We knew we were good,” Banks says. “We knew we had a heck of a team. We saw it early in camp.”
Few outside of Iowa City, though, had reason to believe. The Hawkeyes had melted down in an early-season loss to Iowa State, then survived overtime at Penn State and a miracle finish against Purdue. They were even fresh off an unimpressive win at Indiana. But they were 7-1 overall, with a chance to seize control of the Big Ten title race.
If only they could knock off the Wolverines.
"We knew we were going to win," Banks says. “That was our attitude and mentality. It was like, ‘You guys might want to sit back and watch this.’”
The noon kickoff (Eastern Time) was about to start. In 3½ hours, Hawkeye football would be forever changed.
Iowa won the toss and elected to receive, a decision emblematic of the Hawkeyes’ two-pronged plan: Use a high-powered offense to set the tone early, then use physical offensive and defensive lines to wear down the vaunted Wolverines late.
The Hawkeyes swiftly marched to Michigan’s 39-yard line for a second-and-10, when offensive coordinator Ken O’Keefe called a wide-receiver screen from Banks to C.J. Jones.
“I dropped back to fall away to draw the pressure," Banks vividly recalls. "I let the ball go, and I remember seeing the defender (his back turned) in the way of the pass. I was thinking, 'I hope he doesn’t turn around and grab this.'”
“C.J. did the rest," Banks says of his cousin. "He went to the house.”
Jones raced untouched into the end zone for a 7-0 lead to send an early message. On Michigan’s fourth play from scrimmage, Colin Cole sent another. The big defensive lineman walloped John Navarre and briefly knocked the quarterback from the game.
Iowa got the ball back and marched again: Banks to 2002 Mackey Award winner Dallas Clark for a fingertip catch worth 20 yards; Banks to Maurice Brown for 17 more; Banks for 19 on a second-and-10 quarterback draw; Fred Russell for a 13-yard run to the Michigan 1.
Iowa would settle for a field goal, and its early advantage was withered to a precarious 10-9 midway through the third quarter. Then, Bob Sanders did what Bob Sanders does.
The future NFL Defensive Player of the Year raced upfield on a David Bradley punt, his hit on Markus Curry causing a fumble that teammate Scott Boleyn recovered at Michigan's 17-yard line. It was one of those critical plays that Iowa failed to make in close games one year earlier.
Three plays later, Banks hit Jones again for a 3-yard touchdown and a 17-9 Hawkeye edge.
Stunned silence began to permeate Michigan Stadium as Jermelle Lewis — who had the nickname “Skills” — assembled the best game of his Hawkeye career. Lewis’ 5-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter made it 24-9.
“I just remember getting later in the game and having some more sustained drives,” Kaeding says. “That was something coach Ferentz and the whole staff had been preaching all week, just one play at a time. And once we get into it, our physicality and toughness is going to win us the game. And that’s exactly how it played out.”
Lewis scored again early in the fourth on a shovel pass from Banks to make it 31-9, a memorable trot into the south end zone where all the elated Hawkeye fans congregated. Twenty-one Hawkeye points in just over nine minutes, and the celebration was beginning.
The statement was nearly complete.
“I was on the bench watching the defense play, and I looked into the stands and, man, they were so quiet,” Banks says. “I was like, ‘You’ve got to cheer your guys on to do something.’ But I guess they weren’t in the mood."
The Hawkeyes physically tormented mighty Michigan. Navarre was sacked five times and finished 14-for-33 for only 112 yards. Iowa outgained Michigan in 399-171 in total yards.
An a cappella version of "In Heaven There is No Beer" by the visiting fans as the clock wound down said it all. So did the scoreboard.
Iowa 34, Michigan 9.
The crowd of 111,496 had mostly scattered, except for those happy bumblebees in the south end zone, where Lewis (109 yards rushing, 32 receiving) had scored his final touchdown. Players flocked in that direction and whooped it up.
“It was a neat setting, where everyone else is cleared out of this huge stadium,” Kaeding says, “and you’ve got this small group of Hawkeye fans. To me, those are some of the better moments.”
Without that Michigan win, Iowa maybe finishes third or fourth in the Big Ten. A nice season, but not what it would become.
On the heels of that impressive win, Iowa was an unstoppable November machine — dominating Wisconsin, Northwestern and Minnesota to complete an 8-0 conference record, a shared Big Ten title with eventual national champion Ohio State, a No. 3 national ranking and an Orange Bowl bid.
The success in the Big House was arguably the signature win in what was an unforeseen stretch of Hawkeye dominance. From late 2001 to the middle of the 2005 season, Iowa would post a 25-5 mark in Big Ten play and record three straight national top-10 finishes (in 2002, 2003 and 2004).
From 1986 through 2001, Iowa had plenty of talented teams experience plenty of frustration against Michigan — the Hawkeyes were just 1-10-1. From 2002 onward, Iowa has gone 7-4 against the Wolverines, including wins in five of the past six.
Indeed, the course of Iowa football history definitively changed that Oct. 26.
The parallels to today
Seventeen years later, the similarities are striking.
On Saturday, Ferentz’s 21st Iowa team carries a No. 14 national ranking (just like in 2002) and heads to the Big House for a noon, homecoming-game kickoff against a favored Michigan team (just like in 2002).
And (just like in 2002), this Hawkeye team is quietly determined to atone for all the close losses from a year earlier — with all of its goals still on the table.
Few outside Iowa are talking about the Hawkeyes today. They might be by Saturday afternoon.
Banks, who lives in Naperville, Illinois, and operates a brokerage firm specializing in insurance consulting and business development, still follows the Hawkeyes closely. So does Kaeding, an Iowa City business-owner. They see what the rest of the Iowa fan base sees: A national, Fox-televised stage of opportunity offering a chance to slay the 18th-ranked Wolverines and put the Hawkeyes into the next orbit.
The players see it, too. Defensive back Michael Ojemudia said this week it's an "opportunity to show the country what we’re capable of."
They say if you live long enough, history will repeat itself. Could this weekend serve as another launching point for Hawkeye football in Ann Arbor?
"What this team has in front of them, the opportunity they have at Michigan is the same (as in 2002)," Kaeding says. "They can make this a big statement game on the road against another great Big Ten program.
"If they can get this one and get off to 5-0 with a big victory, I think the sky’s the limit."
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.