Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz speaks after a 27-24 win against Nebraska at Memorial Stadium. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central
LINCOLN, Neb. — On one sideline, you had a coach with players who afterward spoke of resiliency, toughness and a refusal to quit.
On the other, you had a coach blaming players he inherited for lacking mental toughness.
Guess which team is led by Kirk Ferentz?
With all its warts and imperfections, Ferentz’s 21st Iowa Hawkeyes roster has made it to the regular-season finish line with a 9-3 record to be proud of, thanks to Friday’s 27-24 thriller before 89,039 announced fans at Memorial Stadium.
This was the Ferentz way. His teams rarely give up. They nearly always fight to the finish.
And now, for the fifth straight year, they leave the regular season with a satisfying victory against the Cornhuskers. The Heroes Trophy is theirs, as it has been for the past 1,465 days.
They own this rivalry, as evidenced by Keith Duncan's blown kiss toward the Huskers bench.
“It’s awesome to be able to win these close games,” said quarterback Nate Stanley, who was knocked down but not out Friday. After visiting the injury tent late in the fourth quarter, he returned to deliver two clutch throws to set up Duncan’s 48-yard, winning field goal with 1 second left.
“Maybe we would like not to be in close games like this all the time," Stanley continued, 'but I think it shows the resiliency of this team and the effort and passion we have.”
Stanley was right. The Hawkeyes probably didn't need to end up in this high-wire act. They tried every which way to give away a game they held in complete control, with leads of 17-3 and 24-10.
The offense went into hibernation, gaining 18 total yards in the second and third quarters.
The receivers dropped passes, including one by Tyrone Tracy Jr. that would’ve been six points.
Even the normally reliable Mekhi Sargent fumbled, coughing up a potential winning opportunity with 2:32 remaining at Nebraska’s 30-yard line.
The refs didn’t help. This crew had a terrible day. That’s not an opinion; that’s a fact.
The defense, which has saved this team time and time again, finally looked to be gassed.
Yet several Hawkeye defensive players described a renewed fight after the Huskers tied it, 24-24, late in the third quarter. To listen to them was inspiring.
Cue two of the defense’s most gritty, respected seniors.
“We wanted that moment,” said middle linebacker Kristian Welch, whose 11 tackles punctuated a tremendous three-game run after returning from an injury. “We knew we had to go out and make stops.”
"The most crazy game I’ve ever been in. But we were really resilient,” said cornerback Michael Ojemudia, who led a secondary that permitted just 244 yards passing in the final two games. “Even when the crowd was turning up, we had to anchor down and give the offense some energy."
Ojemudia was right on both counts.
This place was loud. This place had momentum. Big Red was piling on the Hawkeyes, ready for its turnaround win in the series ... and a bowl game that would include crucial, developmental December practices.
A.J. Epenesa, who had an incredible 14 tackles (including five for losses) from his defensive-end spot, and his Hawkeye teammates weren’t having it.
On Nebraska’s four fourth-quarter possessions after tying it, the immovable Hawkeyes allowed just 19 net yards of field position to be gained.
“Just proud,” Ferentz said after moving into fourth place all time with his 97th Big Ten Conference win, “of how this team answered every challenge.”
Meanwhile, a coach with six Big Ten wins wasted no time in tossing his roster that just battled a better team for 60 minutes under a figurative bus.
“I think this team’s confidence can sometimes be fragile,” said Frost, his second year at Nebraska done at 5-7. "And that’s the team we inherited.”
Whenever Ferentz hangs it up, I guarantee his successor won’t say anything like that.
Ferentz’s teams, by design, are resilient.
That’s one thing players mentioned earlier this week, how Chris Doyle's calculated strength and conditioning program keeps them as strong as possible in November — when, ideally, the games matter the most.
A crossroads for this season hit Iowa in early November, after a disheartening 24-22 loss at Wisconsin, the Hawkeyes’ third one-score setback in 36 days.
Iowa had fallen to 6-3, its Big Ten West title hopes dashed by a rival.
Ojemudia told me a lot of guys were down after that loss to the Badgers. But, he said, having a top-10 opponent coming to Kinnick Stadium proved to be great timing. Then-No. 7 Minnesota had their full attention.
The focused Hawkeyes responded with a 23-19 takedown of the Gophers, followed by a seizure of the Floyd of Rosedale trophy.
The next week? A hard-hitting, hard-fought 19-10 win on senior day that saw emotions pour out of many Hawkeye veterans.
And Friday? Big plays early from speedsters Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Tyler Goodson. Gritty plays late, from the likes of veterans Stanley, Epenesa and ... of course, the kicker.
The Hawkeyes' 2019 season has been runnin' on Duncan and his Big Ten-record 29 field goals.
Ferentz, 64, deserves credit. He, too, stayed the course. A great coach gets the most of out of his players, and Ferentz has done that again. Next comes a bowl game with a chance for the sixth 10-win season of the Ferentz era.
“We work like hell to get there,” the coach said of chasing the Big Ten championship. “That’s our goal. Every year, it’s been a goal. But the other part of the equation is if you experience disappointment, which happens a lot in competition, you have to keep pushing forward.”
This won't go down as Ferentz's greatest team.
But it's right there for one of his most resilient.
Iowa Hawkeyes Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central
Eight of their 10 games against Power Five opponents were decided by single digits.
No matter what happens in the bowl game, its legacy was a never-quit approach. I can't remember a year with so many times we all say, "Well, a win's a win."
They emerged nine times out of 12, a .750 clip against what we all knew would be the program's toughest schedule in years. They won three trophy games by a combined eight points.
They deserve to be happy about it.
This season was a success.
Stanley and Welch, two stoic Wisconsin natives who had just played their final regular-season games at Iowa, even cracked rare smiles during interviews.
“We always have a chance in every game, as long as we keep fighting and trust in each other and playing for each other,” Welch said, in perfect summation. "That’s what it came down to today. Just continue to swing away. And we got the win.”
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.