Leistikow: Resilient Hawkeyes cap a proud, emphatic finish

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. — By bludgeoning the Blackshirts on Black Friday, Iowa showed why four months ago it was the overwhelming preseason pick to win the Big Ten Conference’s West Division.

The Hawkeyes delivered their most complete performance of 2016 in a 40-10 dismantling of No. 15 Nebraska before 69,814 fans at Kinnick Stadium.

And although they won’t be going back to Indianapolis — Friday’s result clinched that Wisconsin will be the West’s Dec. 3 representative at Lucas Oil Stadium — the Hawkeyes stood proud of how they finished.

Iowa receiver Riley McCarron (83) celebrates with LeShun Daniels Jr. after McCarron's 77-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter.

“It just shows the fight and toughness we have as a team," offered senior quarterback C.J. Beathard. "It really puts an exclamation point on the season.”

Before wondering what could have been in 2016, consider what Iowa accomplished in an 8-4 regular season:

  • It manhandled in-state rival Iowa State by 39 points at Kinnick.
  • It delivered a signature, storm-the-field victory against No. 3 Michigan as a 24-point underdog.
  • It captured three out of four trophy games, including the Hy-Vee Heroes Game Trophy that accompanied this third win in four years over the Cornhuskers.

“It feels good to finish out the way we did,” defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson said. “We played our best football these last three weeks. It showed up, the beginning of the week, every single week. We had a plan, and we stuck to it.”

And don’t forget, this schedule ended up being a lot more difficult than the experts predicted. Two of the Hawkeyes’ losses remain to top-10 opponents in Wisconsin and Penn State. And they still ended up 6-3 in Big Ten play.

And if Wisconsin loses to Minnesota on Saturday, the Hawkeyes would finish in a four-way tie for a West Division title, even though the Badgers own all the tiebreakers. At minimum, they clinched at least a tie with Nebraska (9-3, 6-3) for second.

Of course, there will be stains that follow the 2016 Hawkeyes.

The home losses to North Dakota State and Northwestern in a 15-day span will be lamented.

But without those, maybe the issues surrounding the previously-leaky rush defense aren’t uncovered until it’s too late.

After that 38-31 home loss to Northwestern, the defense mostly buttoned things up — save the 41-14 blowout at Penn State that looks even less explainable now — and heads into a bowl game rocking and rolling.

“We just tried to fix the things that went wrong,” linebacker Josey Jewell said of the early losses. “And I think that might’ve helped us.”

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While the Hawkeye offense was rattling off big play after big play in the first half — Akrum Wadley for 75 yards, Riley McCarron for 77 and Leshun Daniels Jr. for 56 — the defense was swarming to the ball and flustering Mike Riley’s Cornhuskers.

Nebraska punted on six of its first seven drives. By that time, Iowa had racked up a 26-3 third-quarter advantage.

When the day was done, Iowa had outgained the Huskers 408-217. Thorough domination.

And, oh, what a different feel Kirk Ferentz’s press conference had this time after a home game against Nebraska.

Many remember postgame 2014, after Iowa’s 37-34 overtime loss here, for “that’s football” — Ferentz’s curt summation of what happened to blow a 24-7 third-quarter lead.

After Friday’s domination, it was hard for the head coach (and media) not to recognize how far this program has come in two years.

“Yeah, that's no secret; that was a lowlight for all of us,” Ferentz said. “Every fan walked out of here (knowing) that was a bad game.

“You know, if you come away with a good feeling about yourself, you can be proud of your effort and know that you laid it out there. My experience is that you win your share. You don't win them all, but you win your share.”

Iowa won its share a year ago, going 12-0 in the regular season; and now 8-4 this fall. A sweep of Iowa State, Minnesota and Nebraska is mixed in there.

It’s hard not to draw parallels to 2008 again, too.

Just like that team, which went into the bye week 5-3 and finished the regular season 8-4, a three-game win streak began with a home upset of an unbeaten top-three team (Penn State then, Michigan now) and ended with a complete thrashing of a rival (Iowa beat Minnesota 55-0 to cap the '08 regular season).

Whether this season is remembered fondly among Iowa fans partly depends on what happens a month from now.

Will it continue to follow 2008's path? That year ended with a 31-10 domination of South Carolina in the Outback Bowl.

My best guess — we’ll know a little more after Saturday’s lineup of games — is that Iowa’s headed to the Dec. 27 Holiday Bowl in San Diego to face a Pacific-12 team.

Whatever the matchup, it’s been high on the to-do list all season long.

No player on the Hawkeye roster has a bowl win. The program is 0-4 in bowls since a 2010 Insight triumph.

“We finished off the last three weeks the way we wanted to. But we know we’re not finished yet,” Daniels said. “We still have one more to go get. Nobody on the team’s won a bowl game yet, and that’s something we’re going to have to do.”

When this one is over, Ferentz thought about the way 2004 finished at Kinnick, a resounding 30-7 win over a ranked rival in Wisconsin. The only difference is that this one didn't end up with a Big Ten title.

"This one is right there with that," Ferentz said, voice cracking a bit with emotion. "Every player can feel good about what they've done."

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.