Leistikow: The joy returns to Hawkeye football in a top-10 win worth celebrating

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Tristan Wirfs saved his heaviest lifting for last.

The 320-pound right tackle, with a lead block from fellow lineman Levi Paulsen, wound up carrying the Floyd of Rosedale Trophy solo — from the north end zone of Kinnick Stadium, through thousands of celebrating students who flooded the field, across more than 100 yards of turf, up the south end zone tunnel.

Finally, a right turn into the locker room filled by more than 100 happy Hawkeyes.

“I got to the locker room,” Wirfs said, “and I’m like, ‘Somebody take it.’ I just had to sit down.

Tristan Wirfs hoists the Floyd of Rosedale Trophy over his right shoulder on his path to the happy Hawkeye locker room.

“That thing was heavy.”

Wirfs’ triumphant trophy march after No. 22 Iowa’s 23-19 victory against No. 7 Minnesota on Saturday was, fittingly, equal parts joy and relief.

The Hawkeyes’ final opportunity to deliver a special victory in the 2019 regular season was a success.

After one-score losses to Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin — all having justified regret of what could have been — this win was worth celebrating.

There’s no field-storm judgment here.

“We’re really happy,” said defensive end Chauncey Golston, who helped the Hawkeyes record six sacks, the program’s highest single-game total since a 2013 overtime win against Northwestern. “We just beat a top-10 team.”

Maybe this one doesn’t have the luster of top-10 upsets of Michigan in 2016 and Ohio State in 2017, when the Hawkeyes delivered stirring “Blackout” performances as significant underdogs.

After all, Iowa was favored in this game by oddsmakers, and this marked the 15th win in the past 19 meetings against the Gophers. This “M” on the opposing helmet probably doesn’t seem quite the same as when the Wolverines had their 9-0 season spoiled by the right foot of Keith Duncan in 2016.

But the eye test was undeniable Saturday night: Minnesota is a legitimately good team.

It might be the best team the Hawkeyes have faced all season.

Minnesota’s offense was a well-oiled machine for much of Saturday night, with Tanner Morgan dicing through the Iowa defense to the tune of 368 passing yards. The Gophers’ receivers are outstanding, save a key drop or two. We’ll see some of them playing on Sundays down the road.

But a classic bend-don't-break performance from the defense saved the day.

Gashed last week against Wisconsin and practically gassed Saturday, the 'D' delivered the finishing blow.

After Minnesota regained possession with 2 minutes to go — down four, at its own 20-yard line — defensive linemen Joe Evans and A.J. Epenesa stormed into Minnesota's backfield for back-to-back sacks.

Epenesa's went for an 8-yard loss that knocked Morgan from the game. Backup Cole Kramer threw a deep ball on fourth-and-21 that was intercepted by Riley Moss, sealing the Hawkeyes' seventh win of the season.

“It’s a great feeling. We’ve lost some close games in the past,” Epenesa said. “But … we started strong and finished strong.”

The talk from Iowa (7-3, 4-3 Big Ten) all week was to play a full 60 minutes. Close-game heartbreak has become a little too common in recent years, with seven losses over the past two seasons being decided in the final minutes.

A fast-starting offense helped set the table for a defense that finished the 60-minute fight. Kirk Ferentz pointed out that the Gophers (9-1, 6-1) hadn’t trailed at halftime all year; Iowa was up 20-6, at the break in this one.

“Everybody felt the energy on the whole sideline," safety Geno Stone said. "We were playing as a whole team. Offense and defense. We were just feeding off that energy. And that last drive, that was really it.”

The Hawkeyes needed this. The fan base needed this.

Ferentz needed this, too, but maybe not for the reasons you’d think.

The 159th win of his Iowa coaching career nearly brought him to tears during his postgame press conference. He sees the work behind the scenes; he sees the human side of pain, too.

“When you lose, it's hard. It's just hard," he said, choking back emotions. "I'm an older guy right now (at age 64). I've been coaching a lot of games. Had my ass kicked plenty. But you feel bad for your players.”

“A lot of people have opinions (after losses). So, bottom line is, I'm just really happy for our guys. I'm happy and proud of them. Proud of the way they handled this week. It was a challenging week. They handled it well.

“And I'm proud of our staff. They did a great job of giving us a plan against a team that we have a lot of respect for, and still do.

"This is what makes it fun.”

After more than three hours of November Kinnick magic, the joy returned.

The Hawkeyes are 7-3, with a shot at just the program’s second nine-win regular season this decade. Illinois and Nebraska are next.

No, they aren’t going to be Big Ten West Division champions this season. But they might’ve just beaten the eventual winners on a night when they were outgained in yards, 431-290.

They found a way.

That's why Wirfs and the Hawkeyes went screaming toward the bronze trophy of a pig.

“To be out there when the clock is running down in Kinnick Stadium, that's a pretty good feeling,” Ferentz said. “I'm just happy this team, this ’19 team, got to experience one of those. We've come up short three times now. So it was good to finally push one through.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.