Leistikow's thoughts: On Nate Stanley's fight to the finish, Keith Duncan's record day

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The lasting image of Nate Stanley’s final start at Kinnick Stadium was the 243-pound quarterback bulldozing into a swarm of humanity and refusing to go down, his body getting pelted from every direction, and refusing to let go of the football.

A pin-balling, 8-yard quarterback sneak on second-and-1 into the fourth quarter epitomized Stanley’s toughness and the overall lack of flash from Saturday’s slugfest against Illinois.

Stanley never went down, the play finally ending when officials blew the whistle. As Illini players tried to stop him, Stanley's teammates pushed to keep him inching forward.

"The whole offensive line, all the receivers, whoever was in there had my back," Stanley said, "and was making sure I wasn’t getting put on my back."

The end result is something Stanley has continually produced in his three-year career as a starter: a Hawkeye victory. 

Iowa outlasted a feisty effort from visiting Illinois to emerge, 19-10, before 58,331 fans at Kinnick.

Nate Stanley salutes the Kinnick Stadium crowd after his 25th win as a Hawkeye starting quarterback.

As the relentless sneak showed, Stanley literally and figuratively stood up to the punishment he has faced over three years. Finally, after the game, the emotions poured out. The normally stoic Stanley answered questions through tears in his press conference, as he thought about his final game at Kinnick.

Sure, he was imperfect at times Saturday with overthrows and even an interception. But he still threw for a season-high 308 passing yards and even rushed for a career-high 22.

“The student section cheering for us as we’re all running off, there’s no better feeling," Stanley said. "Then singing the fight song in the locker room, I’ll never forget it.”

Stanley’s legs, of all things, lifted the Hawkeyes on an inconsistent day.

His spinning escape of Illinois’ best defensive player, Dele Harding, created one of the best plays of his career. Stanley ran to the left and delivered a beauty of a 40-yard pass to Ihmir Smith-Marsette on second-and-9 in a 13-7 game deep in the third quarter.

This won't be confused as an offensive masterpiece. Far from it.

But it was a win, almost befitting of the Hawkeyes' blue-collar quarterback. He didn't care about how it looked. He cared about leaving Kinnick as a winner amid his Hawkeye brothers. 

“Some of the best memories I’ve ever had," he said. "It’s something I’ll be chasing, hopefully with future (NFL) teams or with future relationships. The bond that we have is extremely special. We don’t have much time left together, but we’re going to make the most of it.”

Keith Duncan was met with a light smattering of boos as he trotted onto the field early in the fourth quarter.

Yes, the junior kicker heard them. And he chuckled, not taking it personally. The boos were in reference to Iowa opting for a field goal — the story of the season, in a way — instead of going for a fourth-and-1 opportunity from Illinois’ 6-yard line.

But Duncan coolly booted a 23-yard field goal through the North end zone uprights to make Big Ten Conference history for a 16-7 Hawkeye lead with 14:08 remaining.

"I mean, we're putting points on the board, why are you guys upset?" Duncan joked. "I mean, (we made it) a two-possession game, you should be cheering. But it's OK."

Duncan, the walk-on from North Carolina, had set a Big Ten record with his 26th field goal of the season with that stroke. He later tacked on a 27th as Hawkeye insurance. In collecting his third four-field-goal game of the season, Duncan surpassed the previous mark of 25 shared by Michigan’s Remy Hamilton (in 1994), Ohio State’s Mike Nugent (2002) and Purdue’s Ben Jones (2003).

The national record is 31. Bowl games count. Duncan's got a chance. Even if everyone else wants to see touchdowns.

Duncan will find out this week whether he is one of three Lou Groza Award finalists. With two misses Saturday, his accuracy dropped to a still-impressive 84.4% (27-for-32) but his productivity cannot be denied.

A touching pregame moment occurred at the end of Iowa’s senior-day line.

Awaiting Devonte Young, a special-teamer from Maryland, were Kirk and Mary Ferentz … with the coach’s wife donning a replica of Young’s No. 17 jersey.

Young explained afterward that he has a step-brother who plays college soccer, so his parents divvy up the games. They weren't here, so they asked if the head coach could stand in. Obviously, the request was granted. The Ferentzes welcomed Young as the last of 19 seniors alphabetically at midfield, with Mary offering a warm embrace.

"I was thrilled that he asked," Kirk Ferentz said afterward. "Scraped the bottom of the barrel on that one."

Senior day always evokes a wide range of emotions and stories, and this was a nice bit of heartfelt pregame scenery. And by the way, mom and dad will still see Young at his last game.

“I told them to go to the bowl game," Young said. "Since that’s my last game, I want them to be there."

Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz and his wife Mary Ferentz meet Iowa defensive back Devonte Young (17) at midfield before a NCAA Big Ten Conference football game, Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa.

This was a significant win for Kirk Ferentz, in the record books and pocket book.

He’s now tied with Hawkeye predecessor Hayden Fry for No. 4 in Big Ten history, with 96 conference wins. Ferentz tied Joe Paterno last week for No. 5. Ferentz joked that it "probably means I've been here a while."

His 21 years as Iowa's head coach were preceded long ago by Fry hiring him in 1981 for what would become a nine-year stint leading the Hawkeyes' offensive line. Ferentz told a story after Saturday's win about applying for three jobs in the spring of '81.

"One at Appalachian State; no interview. One at Hawaii; I got a phone call. The guy said, 'Hey, we need somebody that knows the West Coast. I don't even know why he called me; that was stupid, but he did," Ferentz said to laughs. "... And the other one was coach Fry, and my mentor Joe Moore talked him into interviewing me. But there's never been a master plan. It's just kind of dumb luck, and I'm glad I'm lucky."

Ferentz also picked up a $500,000 bonus for Iowa getting to the eight-win mark, a milestone he’s reached all four years under the terms of the long-term extension he signed in September 2016.

Counting Iowa’s assured bowl game (worth $100,000), that bumps Ferentz’s earnings for the 2019 season to $5.4 million.

As long as we’re talking contracts, it’s worth noting that last week’s seventh win guaranteed Ferentz’s 2024 season at 100% of salary and supplemental earnings. If for some reason Iowa wanted to fire Ferentz without cause after the 2020 season, his buyout for the final five years would be $21.1 million, give or take a few bucks. Not that that’s even a remote possibility, but that’s the math.

In other words, Ferentz will leave when he decides to leave.

Now, let’s get to some bowl talk …

The Holiday Bowl remains high on Iowa’s wish list, and the feeling is mutual.

Wearing his red sportcoat, Holiday Bowl executive director Mark Neville was greeted by a lot of happy Iowans who would love to spend Christmas in San Diego. He joked that he’s already offered a lot of surfing lessons to a fan base that hasn’t been to the Holiday Bowl since 1991.

That seems to be 8-3 Iowa’s highest-probability destination, but it’s hardly a lock. The Hawkeyes could be battling for the invitation with Michigan, which hasn’t been to the Holiday since 1994, when the committee of 15 or so members convene.

Michigan’s 10-3 win over the Hawkeyes on Oct. 5 is “certainly a factor,” Neville said. “I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t. But that’s not the only variable. We have 30 different things that we look at.”

Iowa athletics director Gary Barta, in a pregame radio interview with Gary Dolphin, diffused talk of the Hawkeyes getting invited to the Gator Bowl. That bowl has agreed to take three different Big Ten teams in a six-year period, and Iowa was there after the 2014 season.

“Just a reminder to Hawk fans, we won’t be going back to Jacksonsville,” Barta said. “And we won’t be going back to the Outback Bowl.”

The likely Holiday opponent on Dec. 27 would be USC (which hasn’t faced Iowa since the 2003 Orange Bowl) or Washington (which last met Iowa in the 1991 Rose). If the Holiday eludes the Hawkeyes, the Dec. 30 Redbox Bowl in Santa Clara, California, seems most likely.

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.