Iowa football: Hawkeyes' final-minute gamble may have prevented disaster

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

LINCOLN, Neb. — Once the chaos had subsided and adrenaline faded, Tristan Wirfs and Kyler Schott sat in Iowa’s festive locker room — trying to comprehend all that had just unfolded.

“Me and Shooter were talking postgame and he said, ‘That was the longest 30 seconds I’ve ever been a part of,’” Wirfs recounted with a wide smile. “So much happened.

“It was a roller coaster.”

From offensive uncertainty and controversial reviews to timely darts and one jubilant — but relieving celebration — the final 32 seconds of Iowa’s regular season represents a snapshot of this whirlwind year. Almost nothing has flowed smoothly with these Hawkeyes. Emerging with Friday’s 27-24 victory at Nebraska was no different.

On one hand, Iowa had no business being in this last-minute spot — knotted, 24-24, with the desperate Huskers after coughing up a 14-point lead. On another, did these Hawkeyes deserve a chance to steal a regulation win following three quarters of offensive futility? Those entrenched with Iowa football hardly would’ve been shocked had Kirk Ferentz called for a kneel and trudged into overtime.

Instead, Ferentz leaned on his senior quarterback and hoped for reciprocation. Even after Nate Stanley hit wide receiver Nico Ragaini at the edge of field goal range for a 38-yard grab — only to have the catch overturned on replay — the Hawkeyes were going to push.

Back-to-back 22-yard completions rewarded the gamble. Ihmir Smith-Marsette capped his massive day with a backward-lunging grab near midfield. Sam LaPorta kept momentum flowing with another key catch. All throughout, the Hawkeyes remained composed and calm despite the tense situations. A simple spike set the stage for Keith Duncan’s latest heroic boot.

Thoughts of overtime uncertainty vanished quickly as Iowa’s kicker reveled in Memorial Stadium glory. If the Hawkeyes truly wanted Friday’s outcome to be entirely in their hands, they had to pounce in that moment.  

Iowa junior receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette pulls down a reception late in the fourth quarter against Nebraska on Friday, Nov. 29, 2019, at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb.

“Seeing our coaches have faith in us definitely picks us up a little bit,” Ragaini said. “We got the chance to go make a play. Ihmir made it first; Sam followed it up and Keith put it in. Definitely started with coach Ferentz coming up with that decision.

“We made it work.”   

Duncan’s kick marked Iowa’s first points since Smith-Marsette’s 95-yard kickoff return touchdown midway through the second quarter. That runback was the third jolt in an early line of emphatic touchdowns, following two lengthy scoring runs of 45 and 55 yards in the opening period. It looked as if Iowa was cashing in all its chips on this final regular-season day. A year full of offensive futility was seemingly due to turn.

All that juice was long zapped by the time Stanley crept under center in the game’s final minute.

The Hawkeyes had a whopping 18 combined yards in the middle quarters after pilling up 191 in the first. Following Duncan’s field goal early in the second quarter, which handed Iowa a 17-3 lead, the Hawkeyes offense didn’t cross into plus territory on six consecutive drives.

Three more useless possessions ensued, coupled with Stanley’s fourth-quarter visit to the medical tent with a rolled ankle. He eventually returned, but it wasn’t until Stanley’s 6-yard sneak with just over seven minutes remaining that Iowa finally moved the chains in the second half. Nebraska pounced on that stalling to climb back in.

The offense was hardly in a stable spot when it needed revival late. But Ferentz opted to lean on his veteran quarterback and kicker.    

“We were going for it,” said Stanley who threw for almost half of his 99 yards on Iowa’s last drive. “That’s kind of been the attitude of the coaches and the team this year, be a little bit more aggressive. We were trying to go for the win. We just had to get into field goal range. Keith has proven he’s one of the best kickers in the country. So all we knew is we had to get, 30, 40 yards. He’s proven time and time again that he’s going to perform.

“We felt confident with our guys out there.”

The longer Iowa let Nebraska hang around, the likelier chance disaster was up next. Perhaps the Hawkeyes’ final-minute gamble prevented a complete collapse. Ferentz wasn’t in the mood to find out.

His Hawkeyes were happy to hop on the roller coaster. This ride, at least, ended safely. 

Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.