Leistikow's thoughts: Big-picture perspective on Iowa-Michigan football cancellation

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Even though he was disappointed to hear that Saturday’s Iowa-Michigan football game had been canceled, Kirk Ferentz was intentionally grateful in his tone and message Tuesday afternoon.

And, if you listened carefully, you heard a lot of optimism about the future, too.

“We had eight games. I feel really fortunate,” the 22nd-year Iowa head coach said. “Feel like we kind of beat the odds a little bit.”

MORE: Ferentz take Michigan cancellation in stride, already focused on bowl

Ferentz’s measured perspective was much-needed Tuesday, as wild speculation about possible Iowa-Georgia or Iowa-BYU matchups were flung onto social media in the hours after confirmation landed that Michigan was unable to play because of novel coronavirus cases gutting its roster.

The only realistic option for Iowa finding a new Saturday opponent would’ve been if a Big Ten Conference team became available, but Ferentz quickly shot that down.

Sure, Iowa had a ninth game taken away by COVID-19 issues on another campus — and the games are great. But from Ferentz’s view, he had just seen his team complete, without interruption, a four-week training camp plus eight game weeks and 75% of another. That is something that seemed unfathomable in August, after the Big Ten initially canceled the season.

The amount of development and program progress that Ferentz saw during these past three months was why he was smiling, and not sulking, throughout Tuesday’s 32-minute press conference.

Turns out, the 28-7 win against Wisconsin was the 2020 Iowa football team's last game in Kinnick Stadium after fall.

“I think we've taken a step forward each and every week this season. That's easier said than done,” Ferentz said of his 6-2 team that was No. 16 in Tuesday’s College Football Playoff rankings — not that his focus was anywhere near that. 

“It's more about the day-to-day, what our team is doing, how they're growing, how they're treating each other, how they're reacting.

"We've seen way too many good things this year (to be disappointed). Way too many good stories from our players on the field, off the field, right on through. That's what my focus is right now."

So, Ferentz was happy to tell his team during a Tuesday-evening meeting that they were going to be given the rest of the week off to focus on their final exams and unwind.

“A bye week come early,” he called it. “They've earned a chance to feel good about what they've accomplished.”

Iowa will learn its bowl-game destination Sunday. Perhaps it’ll be a return to the Citrus Bowl for the first time in 16 years. Or, it could be a familiar trip to the Outback Bowl. With any luck, Iowa gets another game and a quality opponent to test its six-game winning streak. A top-10 final ranking is not out of the question.

Like with everything else in 2020, it’s a fluid situation. And we'll let you know when we know.

As long as Iowa’s COVID-19 numbers stay low, a bowl game will mean a few more weeks of development for a developmental program that treasures every week of work. Already in the bank for Iowa is nine game weeks of preparation with a roster that stayed remarkably healthy. That’s three more weeks than Michigan, Maryland, Purdue or Wisconsin received, for example.

It was during a developmental time last year that coaches saw the budding prospects of Jack Campbell and Seth Benson, two difference-making linebackers who anchored a tremendous Hawkeyes’ defense that held Michigan State, Minnesota and Wisconsin to seven points each.

“These guys are good players. We saw that months ago, right?” Ferentz said. “We saw it actually last year as those guys were growing, maybe not playing.”

And what should give Hawkeye fans comfort right now, rather than anger, is that Ferentz is seeing a lot of stories like Campbell's and Benson's — guys you haven’t heard of yet — developing on his roster. He’ll wait until 2021 to talk about them, he noted, but has mentioned more than once that the current freshman class has been impressive.

"I really like the whole group top to bottom,” Ferentz said, “(and) I think our whole staff feels the same way."

Tyler Goodson is the first Iowa running back since Shonn Greene in 2008 to be named first-team all-Big Ten.

Goodson, left tackle Alaric Jackson and center Tyler Linderbaum were first-team honorees by Big Ten media, designations which were announced Tuesday as player interviews began. Linderbaum was the only one of the three who was in the interview lineup.

“I’ve had a lot of people help me along the way, going from D-lineman to offensive lineman,” said Linderbaum, a redshirt sophomore from Solon who had been graded by Pro Football Focus as the top center in the country. “Without their help, I don’t know where I’d be today. I’ve had a lot of great teammates and coaches push me along the way.”

Linderbaum sidestepped a question about what he thought of being second-team on the coaches' ballot to Ohio State's Josh Myers, who played three fewer games.

But Ferentz, the former offensive line coach who has worked with Jay and Joel Hilgenberg (among many others), didn't.

“I haven’t been around many centers in college football better than Tyler Linderbaum," Ferentz said. "I’ll leave it at that."

Jackson had his best year in four as Iowa’s left-tackle starter and appears better-positioned for the NFL than he was a year ago. Guard Cole Banwart was named second team by the media and coaches.

All three blocked for Goodson, who scored seven touchdowns and ranks second in the Big Ten with 762 rushing yards. The true sophomore's 80-yard touchdown capped Iowa’s 28-7 win against Wisconsin.

Defensive players’ all-conference recognition will be unveiled Wednesday. It should be almost automatic that Daviyon Nixon is a first-team defensive lineman, and defensive end Chauncey Golston has a chance to join him.

Keith Duncan leads the Big Ten in field goals, with 14; Tory Taylor leads the Big Ten in net punting; and Charlie Jones leads the league in punt returning. More hardware could be coming Thursday for Iowa's specialists.

Ihmir Smith-Marsette's injury doesn't require surgery, Ferentz said; Ivory Kelly-Martin's does.

Still, Smith-Marsette was not expected to play had the Iowa-Michigan game taken place. He suffered a left-ankle injury while celebrating a 53-yard touchdown against Wisconsin.

Kelly-Martin, however, suffered a knee injury during a Dec. 8 practice that Ferentz said would require surgery. That's a tough blow for the fourth-year junior, who Iowa hopes can rehab to join Goodson for a 1-2 backfield punch in 2021. Ferentz took the time to compliment Kelly-Martin and Mekhi Sargent for their attitudes and contributions as Goodson's backup.

"There's only one starting position. But I can't say enough about all three of them being extremely unselfish," Ferentz said. "... Losing Ivory was a big loss for us on our special teams, because of what he's been doing there. We'll be eager to get that thing repaired and get him back up and running and have him back next year."

Joe Evans was brought to tears when telling his parents he had been put on scholarship.

The defensive end who played his high school football in Ames has been an excellent contributor over the past two seasons, racking up five sacks in a backup role. Evans, receiver/punt returner Charlie Jones and fullback Monte Pottebaum were among those that Kirk Ferentz informed recently that they were being transitioned from walk-on to scholarship player. All three are incredibly deserving.

Iowa has had five players enter the NCAA transfer portal since the start of the season, opening up some slots.

Evans was recruited by former assistant coach Reese Morgan. He went over to his parents’ house in Iowa City and casually brought up the news.

“I was acting kind of strange and just smiling … they (asked), ‘How was practice today?’ I’m like, ‘It was good … and I also got put on scholarship,” Evans said. “I’ve never seen my mom that excited. She started tearing up. My dad did as well. And obviously, I did. … One of the greatest experiences of my life so far.”

Ferentz does not make a big public deal about walk-ons getting scholarships, but that’s actually a reflection of something Evans said Tuesday: Iowa doesn’t treat walk-ons differently from scholarship players.

On a day clouded by the cancellation of Iowa against Michigan, this was a nice side story to discuss.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.