10 moments that shaped the Iowa Hawkeyes' 2017 football season
NEW YORK — The Iowa Hawkeyes spent 60 minutes sliding around on a rock-hard playing surface before emerging with a bruising, 27-20 victory over Boston College in Wednesday’s Pinstripe Bowl.
Finally, a season concluded with postgame smiles, the first time since 2010 the Hawkeyes could say that.
Coach Kirk Ferentz, who tied Hayden Fry for most wins in program history at 143, met with reporters on the ground floor of Yankee Stadium about an hour after the game ended. He was asked how important it was to snap a five-game bowl losing streak and to head into an offseason with a win.
“That’s probably a bigger deal, quite frankly,” Ferentz said. “Most importantly, to give the seniors … a really good memory to leave on. And I don’t think there’s a college player that doesn’t remember their last game, whether it was a bowl game or that they didn’t get a chance to play in one.
“That’s really special, and then what it does in terms of hopefully teaching the younger guys just the value of doing all the things you have to do during the month of December to get ready for a bowl game. Hopefully, it’s (to) reinforce that and maybe next year when we talk about it, assuming we can earn a bowl invitation again, maybe it’ll have a little more meaning, a little bit more gravity.”
Next year will come soon enough. But first ,let’s look back at a topsy-turvy 8-5 2017 campaign for the Hawkeyes, marked by an agonizingly close loss against one top team and a thorough whipping of another. It was a fall that marked the swan song for an all-time great middle linebacker, a meteoric rise to stardom for a junior cornerback and ushered in a new quarterback.
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Here are 10 moments that defined the season:
Handing Stanley the reins
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz used the entire summer camp to choose a quarterback, finally landing on sophomore Nate Stanley a week before the season-opener against Wyoming. The 6-foot-5 Wisconsin native quickly proved it was a wise decision, throwing three touchdown passes in his starting debut and five the next week in an overtime win at Iowa State.
It wasn’t always smooth for Stanley — the football falling out of his hand near the goal line in a loss at Michigan State was a memorable turn of events — but he ended up with 2,437 yards and 26 touchdowns vs. only six interceptions. Who will ever forget the sight of Stanley standing tall despite an Ohio State defensive lineman clutching at his foot to deliver a touchdown pass to T.J. Hockenson?
The Hawkeyes seem set at the most important position for the next two years. Stanley is a keeper.
A superstar emerges
Much of the talk entering Iowa’s opening game centered around Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen, a perceived first-round NFL Draft pick. Containing him figured to be more challenging with the word that Manny Rugamba, Iowa’s most experienced cornerback, would miss the game after violating team policy.
Enter Josh Jackson, a quiet Texan with something to prove and the talent to do so. He recorded his first career interception in that 24-3 win as the Hawkeyes made Allen look subpar. Jackson was off and running to the most startling one-year transformation in recent Hawkeye history. He followed up with four pass breakups against Minnesota, three interceptions in an upset of Ohio State, two pick-sixes as the only team highlight in a loss at Wisconsin. Jackson just kept getting better and better with each passing week, turning in a season that earned him unanimous all-American honors and his own NFL Draft decision.
Looking back, it’s worth asking which Josh who played in that season opener will now be the higher draft pick.
“It’s crazy,” Jackson said late in his mesmerizing season. “You’ve just got to make the most of your opportunities. Always believe in yourself, believe in God, be the best you can be.”
Electric play from electric player
Akrum Wadley will go down as not only one of the best running backs in Iowa history, but also the most entertaining.
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Wadley had a way of gaining his yards in long, explosive bursts, with four touchdown runs of 50 yards or longer. The bigger the moment, the better he seemed to perform. But what he did on a pass reception against Iowa State may have been the signature moment of his career.
The Hawkeyes trailed 38-31 in the fourth quarter and had the ball at the Cyclone 46-yard line. Stanley retreated to pass only to see his downfield options covered. Wadley bolted out of the backfield and Stanley tossed him what appeared to be a safe pass intended to gain a few yards, allow Wadley to step out of bounds to stop the clock, and keep the drive going. Wadley had other ideas. He turned upfield, broke two tackles and sped all the way to the end zone for the longest pass reception of his career and a touchdown that forced overtime.
Iowa won. Wadley talked.
“They had me bracketed outside, so I had inside release. Stanley was looking downfield, but nobody was open. So I had a step on the linebacker. He dumped it down to me, and that was murder,” he told a gathering of reporters. Wadley ended his career with 35 touchdowns, but none topped that one.
A painful loss in a win
The Hawkeyes were polishing off North Texas 31-14 in Week 3. Running back James Butler, who had transferred from Nevada to spend his senior season at Iowa, was having his best game with his new team. Sixteen carries netted 74 tough yards. Butler’s final carry left him with a knot on his right elbow. He left the game and didn’t return to action for five weeks.
It’s impossible to quantify the significance of Butler’s injury. But without him, Iowa didn’t have a trustworthy option to backup Wadley. The Hawkeyes lost three of the four games he missed. Butler had the option of not returning this season and trying to gain an extra year of eligibility. Instead, he put on a bulky brace and went back to work.
“I felt like if I could play, I’d want to help this team win as much as possible,” Butler reasoned. He finished his lone Hawkeye season with 396 rushing yards and a lone touchdown scored at Nebraska. And a lingering question of “what if?”
For 98 valiant plays, Iowa’s defense kept one step ahead of fourth-ranked Penn State at Kinnick Stadium. The 99th play was a Trace McSorley dart to Juwan Johnson in the end zone. The 7-yard touchdown on the final play of the Big Ten Conference opener gave the Nittany Lions a 21-19 win and left the Hawkeyes muttering and trudging to the locker room.
Wadley’s fourth-quarter touchdowns had given Iowa some life. Senior middle linebacker Josey Jewell led an uneven but opportunistic defensive effort. The Hawkeyes almost won despite having the football for half as long as their high-powered guests.
“I think every Saturday, we take the field thinking we want people to be impressed … that those guys left it all out there today,” Iowa defensive end Parker Hesse said. That they did. And it wasn’t quite enough. It was a gut-punch loss to usher in an October that held a couple more of them.
Missing their Jewell
Jewell started 43 Hawkeye games in one of the greatest careers in program history. He too was a unanimous all-American this season. But he had to sit out one game with a shoulder injury. And it ended up in a 17-10 overtime loss at Northwestern on Oct. 21. Outside linebacker Ben Niemann slid inside to replace Jewell in that one, and played a terrific game. The Hawkeyes had a shutout until midway through the third quarter. They forced five punts. But in overtime, they finally cracked.
The Wildcats had a third-and-nine at Iowa’s 24-yard line when quarterback Clayton Thorson dropped a short pass into the arms of running back Justin Jackson, uncovered out of the backfield. Niemann belatedly ran over from his position in the slot to try to stop Jackson, but missed him and could only watch as Jackson rumbled to the 1-yard line. Thorson scored on the next play for the win. How big was that outcome? The Wildcats finished 9-3 and in the Music City Bowl; Iowa, at 7-5, ended up in New York.
“I was supposed to be lined up where I was originally, and we just miscommunicated in the back end. Then I came sprinting in, trying to find the running back. I guess that was the uncovered man. I tried to run back out, got picked and it was just me and him in the open field,” Niemann said. “I have to make that play. It was bad communication, but it comes down to me, regardless. I was there, I just didn’t make the tackle.”
Niemann, a senior, didn’t make many mistakes in a stellar career. That may have been the biggest. And it would have never occurred except for the rare absence of Jewell.
Kick-starting an upset
Sophomore Amani Hooker entered the starting lineup at free safety for the Penn State game. He entered Hawkeye lore against Ohio State.
Hooker jumped into the passing lane on Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett’s first attempt, seizing the football at the 30-yard line with a full head of steam and sprinting for the north end zone at Kinnick Stadium. Barrett hadn’t been intercepted in his previous 190 passes. It took Hooker eight seconds to change that.
It was the exhilarating opening shot for the Hawkeyes in what turned into a 55-24 rout of the nation’s sixth-ranked team on Nov. 4. That game kept Ohio State out of the national playoffs. It also showed that the Hawkeyes have a future star at safety in Hooker, who proved equal to the biggest challenge of his young career. He was at his best again Wednesday, leading Iowa with 12 tackles in the Pinstripe Bowl.
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Rough sequence at corner
While Jackson was masterful on the left edge of Iowa’s defense, the team had trouble finding someone to shore up the other side. It all came to a head in a six-play sequence at the beginning of the second half against Purdue.
The Boilermakers repeatedly targeted Manny Rugamba, who couldn’t keep up with wide receiver Anthony Mahoungou, who scored on a 42-yard touchdown to give Purdue the lead for good in a 24-15 upset at Kinnick.
Rugamba was benched for Michael Ojemudia, who quickly surrendered a 35-yard gain to Mahoungou. Hawkeye defensive coordinator Phil Parker had seen enough. He rushed true freshman Matt Hankins onto the field just in time for another Mahoungou touchdown. But in Hankins, Iowa might finally have found its answer going forward. He started the rest of the way and showed great promise.
Now, with Jackson weighing an early entry to the NFL Draft, the question may become: What do the Hawkeyes do opposite Hankins?
Happiest of homecomings
Nathan Bazata is your quintessential grinder, a hard-working farm kid from Nebraska who earned 37 starts at defensive tackle. He stands just 6-foot-2, 287 pounds and constantly told reporters in his self-deprecating manner that he wasn’t fast enough to chase quarterbacks around. But the former wrestler knew how to use his leverage to gum up the middle of the line and allow his teammates to make the glamorous plays. And on one glorious afternoon in his home state, Bazata showed he had a little fire in him as well.
Cornhuskers coach Mike Riley called for a fake field goal from the Iowa 19-yard line. Bazata was not fooled and shot through two would-be blockers to bury Luke McNitt for a five-yard loss. Bazata sprang to his feet and flashed the “crossbones” sign associated with Nebraska’s “Blackshirts” defense.
You could tell the game meant a lot to Bazata, who wasn’t recruited by the Cornhuskers are anyone else, really. It meant a lot to the Hawkeyes too, who soon buried Nebraska in a 56-14 whipping to conclude the regular season, and Riley’s tenure as coach.
“I kind of knew looking at the guy in front of me. His eyes were kind of wandering a little bit,” Bazata said. “I shot the A gap, and just happened to be right there.” Bazata had a career-high nine tackles against Boston College to conclude an underrated Hawkeye stint.
Defensive ends turn tide
The Hawkeyes and Eagles were tied 20-all late in the fourth quarter Wednesday. Iowa’s defense was much stouter in the second half but still had been having a hard time getting pressure on Boston College quarterback Darius Wade. That changed in the instant defensive end Anthony Nelson whooshed around the right side of the Eagles’ offensive line, finding just enough footing to slam into Wade as he released a pass.
The fumble bounded to Iowa’s other defensive end, Parker Hesse, who clutched it to his midsection and set up the Iowa offense for the winning touchdown. Nelson and Hesse are also the two best students on the Hawkeye team, a pair of academic all-Americans bookending the line. Their smart play is what allowed Iowa to cap off December with a win.
“I just got off the ball, probably one of my best get-offs of the game. Got off the ball quick enough to get to the edge and then turn and was able to kind of slide and slip into the quarterback. I didn’t really realize the ball was out at first,” Nelson said.
“The play is a fumble, but if they jump back on it, the impact is not nearly as large. Parker won’t get the credit he deserves for jumping on that and making it what it was.”