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Leistikow: History tells us that the Iowa-USC Holiday Bowl will be tight, tense

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

SAN DIEGO — The nostalgia for the Holiday Bowl among Iowa football’s fan base has been well documented of late, with the Hawkeyes returning here for the first time in 28 years.

But the original affinity for this game began with the one and only Hayden Fry, who passed away Tuesday at age 90 after a long battle with cancer.

“That was his favorite bowl game,” said Kirk Ferentz, who was Fry’s offensive line coach for two Holiday Bowls but is a first-timer as Iowa’s head coach. “He loved going there.”

There were probably a lot of reasons for that. Ferentz relayed that Fry, Iowa’s head coach from 1979 to 1998, sensed a tight-knit community oozing from a big city. That’s something Ferentz observes, too, in Iowa’s Holiday Bowl reunion this time around.

The first-rate hospitality in San Diego has a Midwest feel, which helps those from Iowa feel at home.

Kirk Ferentz is welcomed by a line of “Red Coats,” the hospitality group at the Holiday Bowl, on Saturday at the San Diego Airport. This is Ferentz's third Holiday Bowl but first since 1987 and first as Iowa's head coach.

“They’re a very unique bowl,” Ferentz said. “And because of that, I think that’s why Coach Fry loved it so much.”

Another big reason Fry enjoyed it here?

The games themselves were memorable, to say the least.

He won two games by one point each and tied the other.

Let’s take a few moments to remember why the Holiday endeared itself to Hawkeye hearts.

1986: Iowa 39, San Diego State 38

The Hawkeyes trailed, 35-21, with under nine minutes to go. But quarterback Mark Vlasic found tight ends Marv Cook and Mike Flagg for fourth-quarter touchdowns, pushing Iowa ahead, 36-35, with 4:26 remaining.

But the hometown Aztecs celebrated like they had won the game after a chip-shot field goal with 47 seconds left. Kevin Harmon, though, became the 1986 version of 2019’s Ihmir Smith-Marsette in the return game — taking a short kickoff at the 15-yard line, juking defenders in the middle of the field, then looping toward the left sideline. His 48-yard return took to the ball to San Diego State’s 37.

Runs of six yards by David Hudson and seven by Rick Bayless set up Rob Houghtlin’s game-winning, 41-yard field goal. The snap was high, but Chuck Hartlieb hauled the football in, got it on the tee … just before Houghtlin made solid contact, even as he slid to the ground.

Fry, in jubilation, was doused by water as he trotted to midfield to celebrate a walk-off winner and a solid 9-3 season.

1987: Iowa 20, Wyoming 19

Much like this 2019 season, the 1987 Hawkeyes came to San Diego with a strong team and a 9-3 record but had fallen just shy of their championship goals.

But Iowa got into a quick 12-0 hole and had only scored on a blocked-punt return touchdown through three quarters. It was down, 19-7, until its defense turned the tide. Anthony Wright collected an overthrown pass and returned it up the left sideline, untouched, for a 33-yard interception return with 14:35 left.

Iowa got the ball back, and Hartlieb uncorked a 48-yarder to receiver Travis Watkins to set up Hudson’s 1-yard touchdown plunge for a 20-19 lead.

But, as seems to be Iowa’s Holiday Bowl history, it came down to the kicking game. Wyoming lined up for a 52-yard field goal. But Merton Hanks raced in to block the attempt with 46 seconds left, preserving Iowa’s one-point escape. On the sideline, Fry fired his fist in the air to punctuate another riveting Holiday win.

1991: Iowa 13, BYU 13

The Hawkeyes entered ranked No. 7 in the nation with a shot to become the program’s first 11-win team — but would have to beat Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer to get there.

Iowa didn’t play well and was outgained by nearly 100 yards by the unranked Cougars. Still, it was 13-13 in the fourth quarter when Iowa’s Jeff Skillett lined up for a go-ahead field-goal try with 4½ minutes left. But Skillett, who four days earlier pulled a groin muscle, missed badly from 40 yards out (he earlier missed a PAT).

Now, the Hawkeyes had to fight to salvage a tie. Detmer drove BYU, which had kicker problems of its own with two missed field goals and a missed PAT, to the Iowa 18-yard line in the final minute. Detmer threw toward the end zone, but it bounced off his tight end and into the arms of Iowa’s Carlos James, whose goal-line interception with 16 seconds left preserved the tie.

The 1991 Hawkeyes (10-1-1) remain the only Fry- or Ferentz-coached Iowa team to finish a season with just one loss. They also remain the most recent team to go wire-to-wire in the AP Top 25 — a drought the 2019 Hawkeyes (ranked No. 19) can end.

So … what about the 2019 Holiday Bowl?

Given that Iowa’s first three trips have been decided by a combined two points, expect another close one.

Vegas does, anyway. The Hawkeyes (9-3) are 2-point favorites against USC (8-4) in Friday’s 7 p.m. CT game at San Diego Community Credit Union Stadium.

While the Trojans' fan base is riled up over the retention of Clay Helton as coach, there is an unknown quantity about what kind of team Iowa will be facing. Will it be one divided by outside pressure? Or galvanized by an internal desire to prove the doubters wrong?

What is clear is that Helton has been game-planning for Iowa for the last two weeks. In contrast, Iowa didn't start game-planning for USC until its finals week ended Friday. 

The Trojans arrive here Monday, with the idea that their preparations will be complete. Iowa's more intense practices began Sunday and will continue Monday and Tuesday, before a scheduled off day Wednesday. (The team will visit the San Diego Zoo instead of practicing.)

"We've taken a sense-of-urgency approach, to be honest with you," Helton said, "about really preparing for what we feel is one of the best teams in the country (in Iowa)."

Buckle up.

Given what we've seen in Iowa's Holiday Bowl past, this should be a good one.

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.