How Iowa football's roller-coaster weekend ended with a trip to the Big Ten championship
Last Friday the Iowa football team left the Memorial Stadium field at Nebraska carrying a trophy: the Heroes Game for the seventh straight time. When the Hawkeyes got back to the locker room they were greeted with another one that the program hadn't seen since 2015.
Their 28-21 win over Nebraska gave them at least a share of the Big Ten West championship. One more domino had to fall to send Iowa to the conference championship game: a Minnesota win over Wisconsin the next day. Players were not shy about openly cheering for their rivals to pull off the upset.
"Go Gophers," running back Tyler Goodson said after the game. "We might not be able to get the whole team together but I'm sure there will be groups of teammates watching the game together and making sure they're cheering on the Gophers."
The Hawkeyes took care of business in dramatic fashion with a 15-point comeback victory over the Cornhuskers. Their Friday result meant that they were able to watch Saturday unfold live on a rare day off.
Defensive backs Jack Koerner, Riley Moss and Xavior Williams attended a watch party with family and friends. Goodson and wide receiver Charlie Jones watched from home with more teammates. Meanwhile, linebacker Jack Campbell prioritized family time and went hunting with his brothers during the game but kept a watchful eye on his phone.
Minnesota's 23-13 win over Wisconsin made the Hawkeyes the outright division champions and punched their tickets to Indianapolis for a showdown with Michigan on Saturday.
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"We were excited to watch, obviously hoping Minnesota pulled it off," Jones said. "They did and it was exciting. We obviously knew what they meant for us."
Current players, program alumni, fans and more flooded their social feeds with excitement. For Iowa's team, Saturday's excitement quickly transformed into laser-focused preparation for Michigan. And that's exactly the turnaround that they'd hoped for.
"Being able to watch it and have the quick turnaround for Sunday is pretty awesome," Jones said. "Definitely a lot of emotions but it's awesome to be here, awesome to represent our school in the Big Ten championship game."
After an emotionally packed weekend Iowa is returning to normalcy: film review on Sunday, practicing through the early week before an off day Thursday and traveling on Friday.
The last lingering question surrounding Iowa and the Big Ten championship was answered (to the public) on Monday. Junior quarterback Spencer Petras is back in the starting lineup after missing three games due to a shoulder injury. He replaced backup Alex Padilla at halftime against Nebraska and helped in the comeback win. Jones confirmed that Petras took first-team reps during Monday's practice.
"Whether he's on the first or second team he's a guy who stays a leader," Jones said. "That proved a lot over the past few weeks. He's continuing to improve and lead us forward."
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Iowa's "24-hour rule" has kept them grounded throughout the year. After 24 hours, the team stops thinking about the previous game and only looks forward. That rule is still in effect after a roller-coaster weekend but the results allow for more reflection right now. The Hawkeyes accomplished their first major goal: winning the division.
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About five weeks ago the possibility of a division title seemed unlikely after consecutive losses to Purdue and Wisconsin. There are more goals on the Hawkeyes' list but they're finding some room to cherish the moment.
"It's been special," Jack Campbell said. "Today and yesterday it's been a lot of guys smiling. We're thankful for the opportunity we're going to get. Obviously we'll be ready to go and we just have to keep stacking good practices on good practices."
It's been two years since Iowa played in any type of postseason game — a 49-24 Holiday Bowl victory over Southern California on Dec. 27, 2019. Last year's Music City Bowl matchup against Missouri was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns.
Kennington Lloyd Smith III covers Iowa Hawkeyes football and men's basketball for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at email@example.com.