Leistikow: How the Hawkeyes' 2020 football season will (and should be) remembered

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

The 2020 Iowa Hawkeyes finished their football season without a single win against a (current) top-25 opponent. In a down year for the West Division, they missed the Big Ten Conference championship game for a fifth straight season. They won’t play in a postseason game, period, after Sunday’s cancellation of the TransPerfect Music City Bowl.

That’s why their pandemic-shortened season will look less impressive in the (digital-only) 2035 Iowa media guide than it actually was. The signature accomplishments weren’t there.

Yet to Kirk Ferentz, his 22nd Iowa team will be remembered as one of his favorites. In a season-ending press conference Sunday evening, Ferentz likened this group to his teams of 2004 and 2008 — a collection of players who faced early adversity behind a sophomore quarterback but rode a stingy defense, believed in each other and finished (very) strong.

“This one will go down the same way,” Ferentz said. “It’s just amazing what they’ve done, especially the last six games … the way they performed, the way they prepared, the commitment and dedication they've shown.”

The 2004 team finished with eight straight wins, a share of a Big Ten title and a Tate-to-Holloway bowl miracle.

The 2008 team won six of their last seven games, including a walk-off upset of No. 3 Penn State and a 55-0 shellacking of a pretty good Minnesota team.

And at one point during Sunday evening’s press conference, Ferentz compared the 2020 Hawkeyes with the gold standard of his 22-year era — the 2002 team, which was “humming” (in his words) by mid-season and pretty much hammered opponents weekly down the stretch.

The 2002 Hawkeyes outscored their final six opponents by a margin of 229-67.

The 2020 Hawkeyes outscored their final six opponents by a margin of 214-83.

“It’s a similar type of year. This was a team that really was gaining momentum,” Ferentz said. “They believed in each other; they were playing better every week. They were practicing (hard). They were doing all the things (that) good teams do. So, as a coach, I was thoroughly enjoying that.”

Sure, asterisks can be typed next to anything in this pandemic year. Iowa will likely finish around No. 15 in the final polls. But the sheer dominance on the field for long stretches was something we’ve rarely seen from the Hawkeyes.

Iowa crushed recent nemesis Michigan State by 42. It manhandled Minnesota, an 11-win team from 2019. It ended a six-game series losing streak to Penn State with a 20-point whipping. It blitzed Illinois to effectively end the Lovie Smith era in Champaign.

This became a really good Iowa team, one that will probably be forever underappreciated.

A few other thoughts on how this team should be remembered …

Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said Sunday that if he got COVID-19 from this locker-room celebration after beating Wisconsin, "it was worth it." That scene ended up being among the last moments together for the 2020 Hawkeyes.

It finally beat Wisconsin. In a snow game. Convincingly.

Ferentz described a passionate desire from his players to participate in the Music City Bowl, even after the program went on pause for a COVID-19 outbreak. Ferentz said a Dec. 21 leadership-group discussion and vote “was one of the prouder moments of this season, quite frankly, because it was a very resounding 'yes.' The guys were clear, to a man. And their teammates were texting them in full support. The attitude was that we've come this far (and) they wanted to finish this thing out.”

Sure, the players would have enjoyed potentially beating up on a mediocre and decimated Missouri team in front of actual fans at Nissan Stadium in Nashville. But there’s something to be said that the Hawkeyes’ most important win of the 2020 season was their last. A 28-7 victory against Wisconsin, the team that’s been in their way for most of a decade, was a resounding and needed statement.

If Iowa had lost to Wisconsin for a fifth straight year and finished 5-3, the offseason vibe would be more listless. The fact that Iowa’s final two touchdowns of that game were the team’s longest two scoring plays of the season — a gorgeous 53-yard toss from Spencer Petras to Ihmir Smith-Marsette, then a dazzling 80-yard run from Tyler Goodson — against a generally stingy rival adds to the feeling that this was a year of program progress.

“To be out there in the fourth quarter and that snow coming down, the lights were on, and us kind of breaking through there was a little bit reminiscent of '04 against them actually (a 30-7 win),” Ferentz said. “… I guess maybe in retrospect, that was a good way to end it. But it would have been nice to have two more opportunities.”

Daviyon Nixon was named a first-team AP all-American on Monday, adding to the defensive tackle's national prominence.

It again produced more fast-rising NFL prospects (who are earning national recognition).

It’s a consistent theme that Iowa develops some of the top players in the country, and that’s played out over the past three drafts, in particular.

James Daniels and Josh Jackson were top-45 picks in 2018.

T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant were top-20 picks in 2019.

Tristan Wirfs and A.J. Epenesa were first- and second-rounders, respectively, in 2020.

All six of those individuals skipped their senior years at Iowa to turn pro.

This year’s prime early-entry possibilities are Outland Trophy finalist Daviyon Nixon and Rimington Award finalist Tyler Linderbaum.

Ferentz said he and Nixon, a fourth-year junior defensive tackle, have had discussions about acquiring NFL feedback. It would be a major upset if Nixon, the Big Ten’s defensive player of the year after a dominant season, returns to college in 2021. But Ferentz had no indication that Linderbaum, a third-year sophomore center with dominant traits, was planning to make the jump.

If Iowa can bring back Linderbaum — one of the best centers Ferentz said he’s ever coached — in 2021, it would be the most influential stay-in-school decision by a Hawkeye since Desmond King in early 2016.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, left, and freshman running back Leshon Williams observe the national anthem before the Oct. 31 game against Northwestern.

Most importantly, it left Iowa’s football culture in a better place.

Here are a few paragraphs from my column the night of June 7, two days after a barrage of scathing social-media posts from former players told stories of racial bias and disparities in Ferentz’s program.

"(Ferentz) has won 162 games as Iowa’s head coach, but these coming months could shape his legacy beyond wins and losses."

"Whether Iowa wins nine games this coming season or 12 or five, what happens to the football culture is the program’s biggest story of 2020."

It’s way too early to declare that Iowa’s culture is fully repaired. We need to see Black graduation rates play out and make sure all players (including at least five who entered the NCAA transfer portal during the season) were treated fairly. We need to see how the lawsuit against Ferentz and the university from 13 former players shakes out in what is expected to be a slow-developing legal process.

But there have been positive signs over the course of seven months, perhaps none more visible than two dozen-plus players taking a knee during the national anthem before games. That action isn’t something Ferentz would’ve tolerated a few years ago, but his mind was opened and changed after frank discussions with current and former players, as well as military veterans.

Another obvious and encouraging sign was that Ferentz didn’t lose this team after an 0-2 start on the heels of such an emotionally charged offseason. This is a team that wanted to play together again, even if it was on a Wednesday afternoon in Tennessee.

“They've handled all kinds of things in stride,” Ferentz said. "They've stayed together. And they've pushed push forward and collectively. They've done some really impressive things. So, for a lot of reasons this is a year we’ll all remember.”

As a result, Ferentz isn’t walking away — or being forced away — from this program yet. In fact, Ferentz seems focused on reaching the back end of his contract (which runs through 2025).

“I might need one of those 65,000-mile oil changes, one of those shots. But I feel pretty good physically. And this is what I like doing,” said Ferentz, 65. “I'm not quite ready to start stamp collecting or bird-watching.

“This is what I enjoy doing. I’ve been probably thinking more about five-year plans than I have five-week or five-month (plans), that’s for sure. That’s where I’m at.”

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.