Leistikow: Kirk Ferentz's Iowa tenure is full of Penn State classics. Time for another?

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — When Kirk Ferentz’s teams have had defining moments or seasons in his 23-year Iowa tenure, a memorable game against Penn State is almost always at the heart of the breakthrough.

Iowa’s 2000 win in Happy Valley, with Ryan Hansen securing the game-clinching interception in double overtime, helped the program begin its rise from the ashes of a 2-18 start to the Ferentz era.

The 2002 overtime thriller at Penn State (a wild 42-35 affair) launched a magical Big Ten Conference championship season and ignited an offense that would set the Ferentz-era standard behind a Heisman Trophy runner-up in Brad Banks.

The 2004 slugfest won by Iowa came just days after Ferentz buried his father in his native Pennsylvania. The thought of Ferentz weeping on the sideline with son James still evokes emotions, 17 years later. That 6-4 win helped buoy a third straight top-10 national finish.

The 2008 last-second field goal by Daniel Murray to stun 9-0 Penn State in Iowa City set the stage for what was to come, which was a 9-0 Hawkeye start in 2009 behind Adrian Clayborn’s blocked-punt touchdown in the fourth-quarter rain in Happy Valley.

MORE: Leistikow: Is Iowa vs. Penn State the biggest home game since 1985?

"I can't answer it. That's just the way it is, the way it's been," Ferentz said of the Penn State rivalry that, for him, goes back to his assistant-coaching days under Hayden Fry in the 1980s. "The ‘83 game (a 42-34 Iowa win in which the teams combined for nearly 1,100 yards) is one of my favorite games of my career as a coach.

"You're playing an established program. If you talk about programs that you really don't need much explanation, Penn State is in that handful of national teams."

And so, here we go again.

It's No. 3 Iowa vs. No. 4 Penn State on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium (3 p.m. CT, FOX), with perhaps the most defining moment yet for Ferentz's Hawkeyes against the Nittany Lions.

More:FOX's Big Noon Kickoff will be in Iowa City for Iowa football vs. Penn State. Here's what we know.

Believe it or not, in 17 meetings under Ferentz (9-8 record), there have been only three Iowa-Penn State matchups in which both teams were ranked — No. 17 vs. 22 in 2010 (a 24-3 Iowa home win), No. 17 vs. 18 in 2018 (a 30-24 Penn State home win) and No. 17 vs. 10 in 2019 (a 17-12 Penn State road win).

In other words, the pregame hype for this Iowa-Penn State battle has never seen anything like this before.

More: Hawkeyes discuss how they plan to slow down Penn State QB Sean Clifford

This week, Tyler Linderbaum was reflective about the stakes. Iowa’s all-American center could be playing on Sundays this fall, but he chose to come back to Iowa City with the hope that a moment like this would be possible. Iowa has laid the groundwork since January — behind a unique camaraderie and player-inspired leadership — to play well enough on Saturdays in difficult games to start 5-0 for just the third time in the Ferentz era.

Linderbaum, no doubt in his final season as he’s expected to be a first-round NFL Draft pick, said he has been thinking about past Hawkeyes who put in work to better the program. He wants to make them proud.

"You look back to all the great Hawkeyes, they’re going to be watching the game," Linderbaum said. "Play for them. They had the Tigerhawk on at one point. Just give your all and try not to let them down."

This one’s for those that can’t watch either, like Fry — who presided over the last top-five showdown in Kinnick Stadium (a 12-10 win against No. 2 Michigan as the country's No. 1 team in 1985) and would love to see this one.

Or the late Norm Parker — whose ornery defensive style of the early 2000s still translates well to 2021.

Or the late Tyler Sash — whose clutch fourth-quarter interception set the stage for that stunning upset in 2008.

Even as successful as Iowa’s program has been under Ferentz, top-five moments like these are precious. A prominent former player is in town this week and spoke to the amount of work it took over time to get to this point.

Marshal Yanda — one of three guards in NFL history to be voted to eight Pro Bowls and win a Super Bowl — is this week’s America Needs Farmers ("ANF") Wall of Honor recipient. At some point this week, the future Pro Football Hall of Famer will give the Hawkeye team a motivational chat as all "ANF" honorees do. He’ll probably remind them that he didn’t experience the highest of team highs here — his Iowa teams were 13-12 in two seasons (2005, 2006) after two years at junior college. 

But with lessons he learned at Iowa, he continued to work hard year-round and get better. He saw the NFL offseason as a chance to make up ground on other players who might get lax in their training. Eventually, Yanda got to the top of his game. With the Baltimore Ravens, he was considered the best guard in the NFL during his peak.

"There's two words that just come to my mind: Preparation and focus," Yanda said. "You can carry that to any part of the game. Everything around here is about preparation. The battle is won before it is fought. And that just starts with coach Ferentz, instilling that in us every day.

"Every year, I got a little bit better, a little bit better. I was still getting better in Year 5 of the NFL, Year 6. Just because that’s the preparation you have."

Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz, left, shakes hands with former Iowa and NFL football offensive lineman Marshal Yanda speaks during a NCAA football news conference, Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021, in Iowa City, Iowa.

For subscribers:Podcast: What's at stake when No. 3 Iowa hosts No. 4 Penn State

I continue to write this because it continues to be true: What Iowa did after last year's 0-2 start went largely unnoticed on a national level. The Hawkeyes' six-game win streak to end the COVID-shortened 2020 season was some of the most dominant football of the Ferentz era. And like Yanda said, their continued work to chase improvement has shown up in the form of an 11-game win streak with 10 wins by double digits.

The challenge is Penn State is on its own nine-game win streak that began last season after the 41-21 home loss to Iowa. Seven of those wins have been by double digits.

So, imagine that: Iowa vs. Penn State meet again with a lot on the line.

The Ferentz era wouldn't have it any other way.

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.