Iowa football punches ticket to Big Ten football title game after Minnesota's upset of Wisconsin
IOWA CITY — After losing in resounding fashion at Wisconsin on Oct. 30, the Iowa football team lost control of its Big Ten West Division destiny.
The best the Hawkeyes could do from that point forward was to win their final four games and hope to get a little help — one Wisconsin loss, primarily — along the way.
On the final game of the Big Ten Conference season, the Hawkeyes got the help they needed.
With rival Minnesota’s 23-13 win Saturday evening against Wisconsin, Iowa earned a trip to the Dec. 4 Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis, where it will face 11-1 Michigan — an upset winner over Ohio State earlier in the day.
The Hawkeyes (10-2) and Wolverines will battle at 7 p.m. CT in a Fox-televised game. This will be Iowa’s first trip to Indy since 2015 and Michigan’s first, period, since the Big Ten went to a divisional format in 2011.
It was a weekend of unlikely outcomes in the Big Ten. Michigan and Minnesota were both 7-point underdogs at kickoff Saturday; Iowa trailed, 21-6, late in the third quarter at Nebraska on Friday.
At Memorial Stadium, Kirk Ferentz's Hawkeyes scored the game’s final 22 points to produce a 28-21 road win and clinch at least a tie for the West Division title at 7-2 in league play. That capped a four-game winning streak since the loss in Wisconsin, all the wins coming by 10 points or less — against West foes Northwestern, Minnesota, Illinois and Nebraska.
The Nebraska win was probably the most unusual of all, with Iowa using a blocked-punt return touchdown by walk-on Kyler Fisher early in the fourth quarter to rally from a 15-point deficit. The Hawkeyes overcame a rough first half on the heels of a week in which a significant number of players missed practice with the flu.
“It’s all about how you finish,” Ferentz said Friday. “It’s about staying with what you’re doing and then dealing with whatever challenges come your way.”
One by one after the Nebraska win, Iowa players made no bones about it — that they would be Golden Gophers fans for one day only. A win by Minnesota, and Iowa would win the West outright … instead of losing it on the head-to-head tiebreaker with Wisconsin (8-4, 6-3).
Minnesota was hailed from the state of Iowa on Saturday, rallying from its own 10-3 deficit Saturday in Minneapolis. The Gophers broke a 13-13 tie with 1:56 left in the third quarter on Tanner Morgan’s 27-yard touchdown pass to Chris Autman-Bell.
All afternoon Saturday, Hawkeye players were tweeting their support of P.J. Fleck's Gophers. Though they were exhausted after another Big Ten grind in what was Iowa's version of the "flu game," they were anxiously awaiting the idea of making it to Indy.
“If we do get the chance to go to the Big Ten Championship," Iowa running back Tyler Goodson said after rushing for a career-high 156 yards on Friday, "we plan on winning that, too.”
Now they have that chance, and it'll come against Jim Harbaugh's Wolverines, who defeated Big Ten East favorite Ohio State, 42-27. Michigan won the team's last meeting against Iowa, 10-3, in 2019 in Ann Arbor. If Iowa wins, it'll guarantee a trip to the Jan. 1 Rose Bowl, at minimum, with an outside shot at the four-team College Football Playoff.
Iowa wore West Division Champions T-shirts after Friday's win in Lincoln, with smiles abounding after just the fourth 10-win regular season in the 23-year Ferentz era.
The Hawkeyes don't feel like they backed into a West Division title. Not one bit. Buoyed by a 6-0 start and a rousing win against Penn State in a top-five showdown, Iowa stands proud of its body of work heading to Lucas Oil Stadium.
“I feel like we earned it. We played our hearts out this whole year. Resilient team. Never quit," Linderbaum said. "No matter what the outcome is (Saturday), just proud of the guys. Proud of how we fought all year."
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.