Leistikow: Kirk Ferentz really likes this Iowa football team. It's easy to see why
COLLEGE PARK, Md. — The term “special season” gets thrown around a lot when discussing the Iowa football program. There is always a hope for Hawkeye fans that this could be one of those years.
They’re hard to come by. But we have enough history in the Kirk Ferentz era to know special seasons do happen. And when they come around — 2002, 2009 and 2015 are at the top of the list — we can look back and pinpoint breakthrough moments along the journey.
As I think about each of those teams — the only three under Ferentz to make a New Year’s Six level bowl — it is always the road wins that stand out.
Most recently in 2015, the defining day in that 12-0 regular season occurred in Evanston, Illinois. Were the 6-0 Hawkeyes for real? A banged-up bunch answered with authority in a 40-10 rout of a 10-win Northwestern team that nobody saw coming.
Take your pick of three very-special road wins in 2009, but the 21-10 win at fifth-ranked Penn State has become unforgettable. Adrian Clayborn’s blocked-punt touchdown helped the Hawkeyes rally from a 10-0 deficit that rainy night in Happy Valley and reminded a fan base that it was OK to believe.
And then there was 2002. In my observance of the 23-year Ferentz era, there was no win that signaled the Hawkeyes’ arrival like the day of Oct. 26 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. That was when 7-1 Iowa went from a neat story to a national story. The Hawkeyes not only beat the eighth-ranked Wolverines, they annihilated them. By the time the 34-9 rout was complete, the Big House had become a party scene for the horde of Hawkeye fans that relished every second of the breakthrough win.
The Associated Press lead from that day read, “The Iowa Hawkeyes beat Michigan so badly that they were able to celebrate and sing with their fans in a mostly empty Michigan Stadium.”
I’m not saying this team is 2002-level — the gold standard of the Ferentz era — after five games. But what we witnessed Friday night at Maryland felt like that validating checkpoint that a special season is afoot. And, oh yes, there was fight-song singing between fans and players after this one, too.
Thought to be a tight game in prove-it spot in a prime-time national spotlight, the fifth-ranked Hawkeyes dismantled previously unbeaten Maryland, 51-14. They caused seven turnovers and committed none. They scored 31 points in the second quarter alone.
“A really good win for our team and a really important one,” Ferentz said. “I felt that all week long. Couldn’t be much prouder of our guys.”
The reward was a giant Hawkeye party for most of the second half, as the thousands of gold-clad fans who infiltrated the Terrapins’ “Blackout” attempt stayed until the clock read 0:00 at around Midnight ET … and beyond.
“Those guys are amazing,” marveled running back Tyler Goodson, whose 67-yard touchdown catch gave Iowa a 41-7 lead early in the third quarter. “They took up half the stadium. They’re everywhere.”
Ferentz quipped afterward, “I’m not really sure where they all came from. I guess we have a lot of people out East.”
There’s something about a road win that means more. Ferentz agrees with that, too. Those road trips can stack additional odds against a team but also become a bonding experience if things go well, like they did for Iowa on Friday.
“We were saying before the game we were going to storm through the front door,” said cornerback Riley Moss, who had the first of the Iowa secondary’s six interceptions. “And we’re going to take what’s ours.”
Ferentz told his team last Sunday that this short week of preparation for the longest road trip of the regular season would be a test of Iowa’s maturity. Did the top-five Hawkeyes have what it took to overcome being targeted by a rising home team’s upset bid?
Did they ever.
And now? Even more hype yet.
The Hawkeyes could exhale Saturday as the rest of the college-football world duked it out. But they’re about to get even more attention, more scrutiny. Because up next is what will be one of the biggest games of the college football season: Penn State at Iowa.
Ferentz is skilled at keeping his teams focused on daily tasks and on guard for a letdown. Iowa will get a lot of love leading into this potential top-five showdown at Kinnick Stadium after laying 51 points on the Terrapins and scoring on nine straight possessions.
But none of those 51 points will be added to Iowa’s starting total against the Nittany Lions, who will be seeking payback for a 20-point home loss to the Hawkeyes last year.
“When it’s all said and done, we’re a 5-0 team that still has a lot of work to do,” Ferentz said. “I think our guys understand that. They’ve also seen, though, if we work hard, maybe some good things can happen.”
Hey, maybe special seasons are on a six-year cycle at Iowa — 2009, 2015 … and now 2021?
After Friday, there’s a lot to feel good about. Including the sometimes-embattled quarterback. It’s becoming clear that Spencer Petras is an ideal leader for this team. He’s got the arm talent, sure, but he’s careful with the football (one turnover all season) and has the support of the entire locker room. He’s got a measured mindset and assured us Friday that the team isn’t buying into the national rankings.
“If we keep winning, it’s going to be more and more hype and more and more buzz,” Petras said. “But it’s all about winning. And to win, you need to practice well.”
Ferentz, 66, finished his press conference with a funny quip about how when he was the head coach at Maine in the early 1990s, people up there were more excited about hunting season than one of his team's important football games.
“If you’re in ‘big games,’ the circus will come to town. We’ve got to deal with that,” Ferentz said. “It’s a helluva lot better than playing the fifth game at Maine in 1991, you know? It wasn’t a circus, I know that.”
The circus — and maybe ESPN’s College GameDay — is coming to Iowa City soon.
Are the Hawkeyes ready?
“We’re going to find out,” Ferentz said. “Today was a good indicator.”
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.