Ten moments that helped shape a 10-win season for the Iowa Hawkeyes
SAN DIEGO — Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz had a grasp on the Holiday Bowl trophy and a lingering crowd of fans soaking up his every word Friday at SDCCU Stadium.
Behind Ferentz, a graying coach who had just concluded his 21st season leading the Hawkeyes, a group of beaming young athletes were pulsing with energy after a 49-24 romp past USC.
Defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon, a sophomore who put his name in the transfer portal last winter, contemplating leaving before he had even played a snap for Ferentz, shouted over and over: “We love you, coach.”
Ferentz turned and handed Nixon the trophy to hold, before it was passed along to dozens of eager hands.
It was a telling snapshot of Iowa’s 10-3 season. The newcomer who stayed to make his mark as a Hawkeye, and the coach who gave him that chance celebrating together.
"It comes down to our players. I think they have an appreciation for what it takes to be a good football team. They go out and work towards that end," Ferentz said. "Simply gets down to the preparation part, then you've got to show up and compete."
Iowa got here by winning its first four games. And its last four.
Between, there were three hard-to-swallow losses to ranked Big Ten Conference opponents by a combined margin of 14 points.
The Big Ten West championship eluded the Hawkeyes for a fourth consecutive year. But a 10-win season did not. Iowa could be ranked in the top 15 when the final polls come out.
The next month will be dominated by speculation over whether star Hawkeye juniors A.J. Epenesa, Geno Stone and Tristan Wirfs will depart early for a shot at the NFL.
In the meantime, here are 10 moments that helped shape an up-and-down fall that ended on an up note:
Oliver Martin gets his waiver … and sits
The summer was dominated by speculation regarding wide receiver Oliver Martin, the hometown hero who decided to transfer to Iowa from Michigan. Would he be granted immediate eligibility or have to sit a year? Martin kept practicing with the Hawkeyes, finally learning Aug. 28 that he was good to go this season.
He caught a touchdown pass at Kinnick Stadium three days later as Iowa opened its campaign with a 38-14 win over Miami of Ohio. That storybook moment was followed by … not much of anything, really.
Martin fell out of Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz’s plans. He was never again made available to the media. He finished the season with five catches for 28 yards.
The only explanation was that Iowa’s top four wide receivers (Brandon Smith, Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Tyrone Tracy and Nico Ragaini) were all performing better than Martin. The storyline of the summer was an afterthought by the time winter arrived. Martin wasn’t even in uniform for the bowl game, the victim of a shoulder injury. Now the question becomes: Will Martin be asked to contribute more next season?
Spencer Petras gets the nod at backup quarterback
Nate Stanley was a three-year starter at quarterback for Iowa, so durable that he never needed to come out of a game that was still in doubt. So that made the battle for Stanley’s backup essentially just a harbinger of who might start in 2020.
Throughout the summer, that duel was between sophomore Peyton Mansell and freshman Spencer Petras. About the same time Martin got his waiver to play this season, Iowa also anointed Petras to the No. 2 line at quarterback. Petras held that all year, finishing 6-for-10 for 25 yards in mop-up duty.
But the larger significance is that Petras will enter the spring poised to be the Hawkeyes’ quarterback of the future, another potential three-year starter. Unless Mansell can win the job back. Or a younger option emerges.
Long time, no 'cash'
Out of summer camp, redshirt freshman D.J. Johnson won the competition to play the hybrid linebacker/safety position Iowa calls “cash.” He had a rocky debut against Miami and defensive coordinator Phil Parker is never hesitant to bench someone.
The problem for Iowa was cornerbacks Julius Brents and Riley Moss weren’t healthy early in the season. So Parker reverted to a 4-3 defense for several games, waiting for someone he trusted to emerge.
Eventually, that was true freshman Dane Belton, who seized the cash spot starting with a shutout victory at Northwestern in Week 9. Belton showed promise. He held onto his position all through the bowl game. If nothing else, Parker should enter spring practices knowing he has at least one young player with plenty of upside to help combat spread offenses.
A win in the rain at Ames
The rivalry game against Iowa State became a slog, a battle for survival as a day game turned into a night game at Jack Trice Stadium. There were two rain delays, one so long that the team sent out for sandwiches.
There were four gutsy field goals from Keith Duncan and a perfectly executed third-and-22 pass from Stanley to Ihmir Smith-Marsette that picked up 27 yards.
Ultimately, Iowa needed one final special-teams play to preserve its 18-17 win. Senior Devonte Young made it, hustling downfield to recover a muffed punt with 90 seconds remaining. The Hawkeyes had a satisfying, surreal, signature road win.
"Anything coach wants me to do, I'll do it," Young said after seeing time at both wide receiver and safety during his Iowa career. "Because it's not about a player, it's about a team."
Too many mistakes to count prove costly at Michigan
Iowa took a 4-0 record to the Big House on Oct. 5, facing a Michigan team that had yet to distinguish itself. Of the Hawkeyes’ three losses, this might remain the most difficult to comprehend.
The Wolverines took advantage of a Mekhi Sargent fumble on the first play to take a 3-0 lead. They made exactly one big play on offense, and turned that into a touchdown.
Iowa, meanwhile, was able to put up 260 passing yards, moving into Michigan territory six times. But Stanley threw his first three interceptions of the season. The interior of his offensive line was a sieve, allowing him to be sacked eight times. The Hawkeyes, normally so dependable, committed eight penalties.
“It’s always tough taking that many hits," Stanley said. "But part of that’s on me. I have to get the ball out, throw it away when something’s not there.”
The result was a 10-3 loss that felt like 3 hours and 25 minutes of dental work for the visiting team. Michigan ended up playing better later in the year. But on this afternoon, the Wolverines were eminently beatable. Just not by Iowa.
Goodson emerging, but has one costly mistake
The bright point of Iowa’s loss at Michigan was true freshman running back Tyler Goodson, who is elusive and confident and clearly ready for a bigger workload. He caught five passes for 62 yards in Ann Arbor, including an outstanding diving catch on a play in which he lined up at wide receiver.
Next was a home game against Penn State, at night. The Nittany Lion defense was salty. Goodson led Iowa with eight carries for 35 yards. But he also made his first big mistake late in the third quarter when Iowa was deep in its territory and trailing just 7-6. Penn State’s PJ Mustipher, unblocked, met Goodson just as he took a handoff and jarred the ball loose.
The Nittany Lions recovered, and started building on their lead. Iowa scored late to make it a 17-12 final, but it was a third consecutive one-possession loss to Penn State.
Tellingly, Ferentz and his staff didn't lose faith in Goodson. In fact, they increased his workload.
Goodson ended with 638 rushing yards, the first true freshman to ever lead the Hawkeyes in that category. He carried the ball 18 times in the Holiday Bowl, scoring his team-best fifth rushing touchdown. The Hawkeyes enter next season with a new clear-cut No. 1 in the backfield.
A middle linebacker is lost, and so is a big game
Senior middle linebacker Kristian Welch went out of the Penn State game after suffering a shoulder stinger. He had eight tackles in that one and was leading the Hawkeyes in that statistic for the season while providing a sturdy and steady presence in the middle of the defense.
Welch missed three games. Iowa won the first two, against Purdue and at Northwestern, without him.
But traveling to Welch’s home state of Wisconsin, where star running back Jonathan Taylor awaited, was a much different challenge. Welch’s absence was felt in that game, which essentially was for the Big Ten West title. Redshirt freshman Dillon Doyle replaced him and came up with seven tackles. But Taylor gouged the Hawkeye defense for 250 yards, helping Wisconsin hold the football for 37:24.
It was too much to overcome in a 24-22 Hawkeye setback. Would Welch have made the difference in Madison? Iowa fans can always wonder.
He returned the next week and had double-digit tackles in the final three regular-season games, all Hawkeye wins. Welch was a stud when he was in the lineup.
“It means everything, just being a senior,” Welch said after the Illinois game. “How hard you work for it, the offseason, with a lot of stuff you guys don’t necessarily see. The long days of camp, the training sessions, all that. Getting injured is obviously frustrating, because you work so hard for those moments in those games. To come back and play well, it’s never perfect, I understand that. But to play well means everything.”
An agonizing foot away from a tie score
Still, the Hawkeyes had a chance to tie Wisconsin late in the game. Stanley rallied the Hawkeyes for 12 fourth-quarter points, the final six coming on a 75-yard connection with Tyrone Tracy.
Iowa needed a two-point conversion. Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz turned to Stanley, a 6-foot-4, 243-pounder who excelled all season on quarterback sneaks. This was a designed draw, out of the shotgun, three yards from a brand-new ballgame.
Stanley was met with a violent collision a foot short of the goal line. He tried to extend the football over. Not quite.
The Badgers ran out the clock. Iowa set its sights on a new goal: A 10-win season.
Duncan becomes a legend with a walkoff and a kissoff
Iowa won at home over Minnesota and Illinois to get to 8-3. All that remained was a Black Friday trip to Nebraska, a team that was pumped up in the summer but wilting by the fall, needing one more win just to get to a bowl game.
Iowa took a 24-10 halftime lead, but the Huskers dominated the third quarter. The teams entered the fourth quarter tied at 24.
Stanley got one last chance, completing a pair of clutch passes to get his team close enough to call on the surprise star of the season. Junior kicker Keith Duncan, who started the season battling for the starting job with Caleb Shudak and lacking a scholarship, had made 28 of 33 field goals in an all-American campaign.
Now, he needed to be true from 48 yards on a 37-degree day at Memorial Stadium. Nebraska coach Scott Frost called timeout to play some mind games with Duncan.
Duncan connected with one second left on the clock, then turned to blow kisses at the Cornhusker bench, before stopping in the middle of the field to strike a bullfighter’s pose. It was grand theater. It was epic trolling.
It was a kicker’s finest hour. Duncan will never have to buy another drink in Iowa City.
The Hawkeyes were headed to the Holiday Bowl. The Cornhuskers were left complaining about poor sportsmanship. Duncan was happy to take that tradeoff.
Stanley goes out a winner for a third straight year
Only Ricky Stanzi had quarterbacked Iowa to three consecutive bowl-game victories.
Stanley had a 2017 Pinstripe Bowl victory to his credit, and another in the 2019 Outback Bowl.
He threw for 213 yards and a pair of touchdowns Friday to notch his final one, numbers that don’t do justice to how expertly he played.
Afterward, Stanley kept smiling up into the stands, where Iowa fans saluted him and this team long into the crisp evening. At one point, Stanley had his team herded into its “swarm” alignment, preparing to trot en masse back to the locker room. But no one was ready to leave yet. The Hawkeyes instead swept back onto the field for more celebrating.
"Our goal of a Big Ten championship was taken. We didn't play well enough in a couple games to put ourselves in that position," Stanley said. "When we knew that goal was off the table, we set our sights on a new goal. Everybody bought in. Everybody was bought in from January. Every single person bought into what we wanted to do. Every single one of those 19 seniors showed a great example of what to do and how to get there. Everybody responded.
"This team is probably one of the closest teams that I've been on in my four years here. It's just extremely special to reap the harvest, really. When you can go out and win with your teammates, especially against USC, in a prime time game in a place like this, it's extremely special."
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at email@example.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.