Leistikow: Ranking the 10 most enjoyable Hawkeye football wins of the last decade

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Iowa began the just-completed decade with a memorable bowl-game victory … and finished it with another.

While talking with some avid Hawkeye football fans over the holidays, they mentioned that Iowa’s 49-24 domination of USC in the Dec. 27 Holiday Bowl ranked as one of their favorite wins of the past 10 years.

And that, of course, got me thinking … and researching … and thinking some more.

What were the 10 most enjoyable Hawkeye football wins from 2010 to 2019?

So, I decided to rank them (and reveal them in reverse order, for mild dramatic effect).

Before we get going, a few ground rules.

One, you’ll notice the list is “wins” not “games” — there were a ton of purely entertaining games that surfaced in further discussions with my text-message group. The 2015 Big Ten Championship Game, the 2017 Penn State thriller decided on the final fourth-down play at Kinnick Stadium, even the 2010, 2014 and 2018 losses to Wisconsin were instant classics. But none resulted in a Hawkeye victory.

Two, the Orange Bowl after the 2009 season counts — after all, it did occur on the fifth day of this past decade.

Three, this was way tougher than I thought it'd be. There were a lot of good games that were left out (many listed at the bottom of this story). The 2015 season alone deserved four or five spots.

Lastly, everyone’s list is going to be different. The word “enjoyable” to me, in this exercise, tries to measure the in-the-moment fun and satisfaction that emerges from that game experience. Extra weight was awarded to the program meaning of the win itself.

This is my list, not a definitive one … but I did spend more time on this than my kids probably would have wanted me to.

Here goes.

Kevonte Martin-Manley (11), who would eventually become Iowa's all-time leader in receptions, celebrates his game-winning touchdown against Pittsburgh in 2011 with teammates Keenan Davis (6) and Zach Derby (85).

No. 10: Iowa 31, Pittsburgh 27 (Sept. 17, 2011)

Why it’s here: The biggest comeback victory in Iowa history has to be in the top 10 of this decade, doesn’t it? After scoring three points in nearly 44 minutes, Iowa scored 28 in the final 16. James Vandenberg’s 399 passing yards were by far the most by any Iowa quarterback this decade (Nate Stanley’s 333 at Iowa State in 2017 are next).

What happened: The Hawkeyes trailed by as many as 21 points and still were down, 27-10, with 10 minutes to go. But Vandenberg went to a furious, no-huddle approach and the Iowa offense exploded. The junior quarterback hit Keenan Davis for one touchdown and freshman Kevonte Martin-Manley for two, including a 22-yarder with 2:51 to go. A sack by Mike Daniels and interception by Micah Hyde (both future NFL Pro Bowlers) curtailed Pittsburgh’s final two drives.

Defensive lineman Louis Trinca-Pasat hoists the Heroes Game trophy in 2013 to mark Iowa's first win against Nebraska since 1981.

No. 9: Iowa 38, Nebraska 17 (Nov. 29, 2013)

Why it’s here: Some may have forgotten how much program angst there was after a 4-8 season in 2012, followed by how the 2013 season began (with a home loss to Northern Illinois). Plus, Nebraska had stifled the Hawkeyes since joining the Big Ten and had won a division title the previous year. 

What happened: Iowa's tremendous senior linebacker trio of Anthony Hitchens, James Morris and Christian Kirksey forced one turnover apiece in holding the 8-3 Cornhuskers to 288 yards and a season low in points. This was a Hawkeye romp, symbolized by one third-quarter sequence that saw Nebraska fail on a fake punt, then give up a touchdown pass by Jake Rudock on the next play. Coach Bo Pelini was flagged for swiping his hat at an official, but the Cornhuskers' frustration against Iowa was only beginning. This was the first of four straight Iowa wins in Lincoln and kicked off a stretch of six Heroes Trophy wins in seven seasons. Talk about satisfying.

Micah Hyde dives for the North end at Kinnick Stadium to complete a dramatic pick-six runback that gave Iowa a 17-0 first-quarter lead against the fifth-ranked Spartans.

No. 8: Iowa 37, Michigan State 6 (Oct. 30, 2010)

Why it’s here: The Kirk Cousins-led Spartans were 8-0 and ranked No. 5 nationally, and the Hawkeyes were fresh off a soul-crushing, one-point home loss to Wisconsin. But Iowa rose up and showed why it was a preseason top-10 team.

What happened: In what wound up as Michigan State's only loss in an 11-1 season, Iowa led 30-0 by halftime. One of the more memorable Iowa plays of the decade occurred late in the first quarter, when a Cousins pass was intercepted by Tyler Sash, who then lateraled the football to Hyde, who flew into the end zone to complete 66-yard defensive touchdown to put Iowa ahead, 17-0. There's something a little more fun about completely dominating a top-end coach (Mark Dantonio in this case; we'll get to Urban Meyer later).

Akrum Wadley is mobbed by teammates after scoring one of his four touchdowns in Evanston in 2015, an unexpected blowout of a ranked Northwestern team that set the table for an undefeated regular season.

No. 7: Iowa 40, Northwestern 10 (Oct. 17, 2015)

Why it’s here: The Hawkeyes hobbled into Evanston with a 6-0 record, with injuries having decimated the offensive line, the running backs, the receivers and even the quarterback. C.J. Beathard was questionable all week with a serious groin injury. But a fourth-string running back helped launch Iowa to a road rout, in what was probably the most important win of a 12-0 season.

What happened: When previous-week hero Jordan Canzeri was knocked out with a first-quarter ankle injury, it seemed like Iowa was out of bullets. But fumble-prone sophomore Akrum Wadley was brought off the bench and saved the day. On the first play of the second quarter, Wadley raced 35 yards around the left end for a "whoa" touchdown that broke open a 3-0 game. Running behind a patchwork line that saw true freshman James Daniels get his first career start, Wadley finished with 204 yards rushing and four touchdowns on 26 carries. And the 20th-ranked Wildcats, who would go on to a 10-2 regular season, had been humiliated at home.

Then an unknown true freshman in his second college game, Ihmir Smith-Marsette catches a pass from Nate Stanley in overtime that beat Iowa State, 44-41.

No. 6: Iowa 44, Iowa State 41, OT (Sept. 9, 2017)

Why it’s here: At least three Cy-Hawk wins could've made this list, but there was no more unpredictable, wild game than this one in Ames.

What happened: The Cyclones had found footing under second-year coach Matt Campbell and seemed poised to break through, owning a 31-21 fourth-quarter lead after David Montgomery's touchdown run. But cool sophomore Nate Stanley, making his second career start, led the Hawkeyes to two touchdowns in the final 6½ minutes. Wadley's spectacular 46-yard catch and run with 1:09 remaining forced overtime, where Stanley (27 of 41, 333 yards, five touchdowns) would deliver again — this time to true freshman Ihmir Smith-Marsette, who used his spindly speed to break open for a 5-yard TD catch just inside the pylon to end the game

Three years before he would be a Lou Groza Award finalist, Keith Duncan was a true freshman walk-on in 2016 and knocked through this 33-yarder to beat 9-0 Michigan as time expired.

No. 5: Iowa 14, Michigan 13 (Nov. 12, 2016)

Why it’s here: The unlikelihood of the upset (Iowa was a three-touchdown underdog after getting blown out a week earlier at Penn State) and the dramatic finish make this one of the program's most memorable wins.

What happened: Jim Harbaugh entered Kinnick Stadium for the first time since the 1985 No. 1 vs. No. 2 classic when he was Michigan's quarterback, and suffered the same fate — a walk-off loss by a field goal. The third-rated Wolverines were 9-0 and had the nation's No. 1 defense and No. 3 scoring offense … and got pulled into a smash-mouth slugfest. Iowa had zero passing game, but it did have Wadley, who accounted for 115 of Iowa's 164 rushing yards and 52 of its 66 passing yards. Iowa trailed, 10-0, until Jaleel Johnson's second-quarter safety. Desmond King's punt return got Iowa into Michigan territory with 1:23 left, and Beathard's 8-yard quarterback draw on third-and-7 set up Keith Duncan's 33-yard game-winner. And a field-storming was on. 

Kirk Ferentz is presented with the Holiday Bowl trophy from lead Fox Sports analyst Joel Klatt after the Hawkeyes demolished USC, 49-24, on Dec. 27.

No. 4: Iowa 49, USC 24 (Dec. 27, 2019)

Why it’s here: Handing USC, a traditional college football heavyweight, its worst bowl-game loss since 1948 carries a ton of clout. Additionally, it capped just the second 10-win season of the decade in dynamic fashion — just weeks after the death of legendary coach Hayden Fry, who considered the Holiday Bowl his favorite bowl trip.

What happened: Iowa saved its best offensive performance of a 10-3 season for last. It scored touchdowns on its first five possessions, including a 98-yard kickoff return by Smith-Marsette, to outrace the 23rd-ranked Trojans. Defensive MVP A.J. Epenesa recorded 2½ sacks and knocked USC quarterback Kedon Slovis out of the game with an arm injury, while Stanley delivered a memorable 8-yard QB sneak on his way to a 3-0 finish in bowl games. It was a complete Hawkeye show of strength and capped a 47-19 stretch from 2015 to 2019, the most wins in a five-year span in program history.

George Kittle, a future NFL star, scores the first touchdown of the game in Iowa's 28-20 win at Nebraska in 2015 that capped a 12-0 regular season.

No. 3: Iowa 28, Nebraska 20 (Nov. 27, 2015)

Why it’s here: There had arguably never been a game with more at stake for a Kirk Ferentz program … until the following week’s Big Ten championship. And the Hawkeyes came through on the road before an announced crowd of 90,830 to complete a 12-0 regular season. What that Black Friday win meant to Hawkeye fans, who had been hearing from all corners of the country that their team was fraudulent, was significant.

What happened: This is one where the meaning of the game trumps drama or execution. Iowa went 0-for-9 on third down and was outgained, 433-250, but it didn’t matter. The Hawkeyes opened the scoring with a Beathard touchdown pass to backup tight end George Kittle — heard of him? — and later got two long, third-quarter TD runs (on the same outside-zone play to the left) from back-from-injury running back Canzeri. Future consensus all-American linebacker Josey Jewell recorded the fourth interception of Nebraska’s Tommy Armstrong to essentially seal history and a play-in game in Indianapolis for the College Football Playoff.

No. 2: Iowa 24, Georgia Tech 14 (Jan. 5, 2010)

Why it’s here: Iowa’s only major (BCS) bowl win since the 1959 Rose Bowl deserves a special place in history, especially considering the suffocation unleashed by defensive coordinator Norm Parker.

What happened: Behind its vaunted triple-option attack, ACC champion Georgia Tech entered the Orange Bowl ranked No. 1 nationally in time of possession, No. 2 in rushing and No. 11 in scoring. But with a month to prepare, Parker’s defense, led by dynamic defensive end Adrian Clayborn, held the Yellow Jackets to nine first downs, 155 yards and one offensive touchdown. After having just 14 three-and-outs all season (lowest in the nation), Georgia Tech failed to get a first down on its first four possessions. Ricky Stanzi set the tone with two first-quarter touchdown passes, a satisfying finish in Miami after his fluke injury derailed Iowa’s historic 9-0 start to the 2009 season. The Hawkeyes' No. 7 final AP ranking is the highest of the Ferentz era.

Noah Fant celebrates Iowa's 55-24 demolition of then-No. 3 Ohio State. The tight end caught two of Nate Stanley's five touchdown passes in the historic upset.

No. 1: Iowa 55, Ohio State 24 (Nov. 4, 2017)

Why it’s here: Nobody saw this coming. And the sheer domination of a college football powerhouse as at three-touchdown underdog sets it apart from any of Ferentz’s 162 wins at Iowa.

What happened: J.T. Barrett, the quarterback of third-ranked Ohio State, had thrown one interception entering this game. On this Saturday, he threw four — one to Amani Hooker on the game’s first snap and three more to eventual all-American Josh Jackson. Stanley, playing behind freshman offensive tackles Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs, threw four of his five touchdown passes to sophomore tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson. A young team with a first-year offensive coordinator could do no wrong and showed what was possible in a historic rout that’ll never be forgotten.

Some games that missed the cut ...

These were all hard to leave off in their own way but worth mentioning (in chronological order): The 2010 Insight Bowl win against Missouri (27-24), in which Hyde's winding, fourth-quarter interception return foiled Blaine Gabbert and the 12th-ranked Tigers to cap a disappointing season with an exciting win. … The 2015 game at Iowa State (31-17), as Beathard's nimble feet and big fourth-quarter throws got a magical season off to a dramatic start. … The 2015 win vs. Pittsburgh (27-24), which began with Brett Greenwood's emotional walk to midfield and finished with Marshall Koehn's 57-yard field goal as time expired. … The 2016 rout of 9-2 Nebraska (40-10), after which a Cornhuskers assistant said that Iowa practices must be a "bloodbath" because of how physical the Hawkeyes played. … The 2017 blowout at Nebraska (56-14), in which Omaha native Fant hauled in a college-career-best 116 receiving yards and two touchdowns. … The 2018 domination at Illinois (63-0), a beating that matched the most lopsided loss in Illini history. … The 2019 Outback Bowl victory against Mississippi State (27-22), which saw former walk-on Nick Easley earn game MVP honors against the nation's No. 1-ranked defense. … The 2019 win at Iowa State (18-17), the most-hyped Cy-Hawk matchup ever with ESPN's "College GameDay" in Ames and a roller-coaster game that lasted six hours with weather delays. … And the 2019 win against 9-0 Minnesota (23-19), another top-10 slaying at Kinnick Stadium in November that derailed a rival's big dreams.

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.