How overcoming adversity and a note from Kirk Ferentz helped Iowa reach Big Ten title game
Iowa's football team has frequently used the word "opportunity" leading up to Saturday's Big Ten championship game against Michigan. This game is rare for the Hawkeyes: It's only their second conference title game appearance and first since 2015.
The Hawkeyes are one of 20 FBS teams playing for a league championship this weekend. The FOX primetime slot will put them on a national stage. The unique opportunity is not lost on the players — safety Keavon Merriweather admitted this week that he found himself repeatedly telling a friend over the phone that he was playing for a championship.
"I probably said it every 5-10 minutes," Merriweather said. "It's just surreal. To be able to finish this journey and finish this mission that we've been on is something I'm definitely excited for."
One month ago, it would have been hard to imagine Iowa in this position. The Hawkeyes had just come off a second straight loss, vs. Wisconsin, that sent them spiraling from the No. 2 ranking in the country to third place in the Big Ten West. It was their darkest point after what had been a historic start to the season. In that moment, head coach Kirk Ferentz rallied his team with the help of a national championship basketball coach.
Ferentz doesn't know Virginia coach Tony Bennett personally, but he has a lot of respect for him and thought highly of his father, Dick Bennett, who coached college basketball for more than 20 years, including several years at Wisconsin from 1995-2001.
Iowa's football coach left a note in each player's locker following the Wisconsin loss with the following quote from Tony Bennett:
"If you learn to use adversity right, it will buy you a ticket to a place you couldn't have gone any other way."
Bennett's quote came minutes after his Cavaliers defeated Texas Tech for the 2019 national championship. One year earlier, they were the first No. 1 seed in history to lose to a 16 seed.
The Hawkeyes were a top-5 team defeated by a heavy underdog in Purdue (11.5-point betting line) and again by the 4-3 Badgers. But no championship run is without adversity.
"It really brought me back to last year and losing the first two games," defensive end Zach VanValkenburg said. "Having the ability to claw back and make a season out of it winning six straight (games). I think we had to have the same mentality these last four weeks and now that's gotten us to the point where we're able to compete for a championship."
VanValkenburg admitted that "overcoming adversity" can be seen as a buzzword or cliche, but for the Hawkeyes it's been their trademark.
"You might've lost two games but do you have the ability to come back on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and practice like you have all year," VanValkenburg said. "It's even more apparent on the field, if you're down and things aren't going your way, are you able to flush it and move on?"
Iowa overcame double-digit deficits twice during its November win streak and three times total this season. The Hawkeyes had injuries on the offensive line, secondary and quarterback and survived an 11th-hour flu scare during the last week of the regular season.
Their ability to perform in the clutch punched their ticket to Indianapolis. The Hawkeyes are 7-0 this season in games decided by 10 points or less.
How does Iowa continuously keep its composure? Teams usually take the personality of their coaches, and Ferentz's even-keel demeanor is exactly what the Hawkeyes needed down the stretch.
"He has so much experience that he's not going to switch up if we're winning or losing," center Tyler Linderbaum said. "He preaches the same things when we're 6-0 and when we're 0-2. He's just a steady guy, improvement-driven and not worried about the outside noise."
Ferentz credited his team's leadership for the turnaround after Iowa's 28-21 win over Nebraska gave the Hawkeyes a share of the Big Ten West title. He noted that younger players listening to older players isn't a given each year and that's the mark of strong upperclassmen. This week, veterans such as running back Tyler Goodson returned the praise, saying that Ferentz's approach perfectly fit this team.
The Hawkeyes are a young team. Some underclassmen have played from the start and others are filling in due to injury. The upperclassmen — by way of Ferentz — have done a good job mentoring younger teammates and guiding them through the grind of the Big Ten.
"Being inexperienced, it's hard each week to stay consistent and keep your mind in it mentally because it takes a toll throughout the season," Goodson said. "The main thing is having our vets in the room lead those guys to keep pushing and keep playing to the best of their abilities. Those young guys have been able to take critiques from the coaches and players."
Now, Iowa sits at the doorstep of its first conference championship since 2004.
"Overall they've been determined all season long," Ferentz said. "It's one of the characteristics that stands out. They work hard. They compete hard. And also they've shown great character and they really do care about each other. They like each other, trust each other and care about each other."
Iowa's opponent, Michigan, is heavily favored on Saturday. There likely will be moments of adversity, but experience in those moments is on the Hawkeyes' side. Those moments got Iowa to this point and the team is hoping to make good on the opportunity presented.
"I don't think a lot of people have us winning this next game," Linderbaum said. "And a lot of people think we shouldn't even show up, so that's a little chip on our shoulder. We know a lot of people are doubting us and it's time to prove what Iowa football is, how we play the game and how physical we can be."
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.