Leistikow: Honoring an Iowa football senior class that has seen it all
IOWA CITY − From Lucas Amaya to Jameson Witte, a whopping 27 Iowa football players will be honored in alphabetical order before the Hawkeyes’ 3 p.m. Friday regular-season finale against Nebraska. As each outgoing senior makes his way to Kinnick Stadium’s midfield, where family members and head coach Kirk Ferentz will be waiting to greet them, the opportunity for a rush of emotions is there.
What an incredible journey this tremendous senior class has experienced. Few groups at Iowa have enjoyed more wins. Fifth-year seniors have a 42-17 record (.712 winning percentage); four-year guys are 33-13 (.718) with as many as three more games to go.
And arguably no group will ever again be faced with the extreme circumstances that this one was … only to overcome adversity, again and again.
On the heels of back-to-back bowl-win years, including a 10-3 campaign in 2019 that was completed with a 49-24 thrashing of Southern California, this group of seniors came face to face with an emotionally draining 2020. The racial-bias investigation and fallout that summer brought heated conversations, triggered the ousting of longtime strength coach Chris Doyle and threatened to tear down a storied program and head coach. Then came the Big Ten Conference’s cancellation of the 2020 season due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, only to have it resuscitated amid stringent safety protocols that sometimes put players in quarantine for four weeks at a time. Those were taxing days for everyone, to say the least.
Then came a 0-2 start to the 2020 season and a program crossroads with a brief flurry of transfers (all Black players) and the OWI arrest by a senior wide receiver after a crushing Northwestern loss.
That led to the first of three improbable “get-off-the-mat” moments for this senior class, a 49-7 trouncing of Michigan State that spurred a 12-game winning streak over the next two seasons. These players would keep gaining steam and eventually experienced the highest of football highs on Oct. 9, 2021, when they scored a late touchdown to defeat Penn State, 23-20, in an unforgettable top-five showdown at Kinnick Stadium. A few days later, Iowa achieved its highest national ranking (No. 2) in 36 years, dating back to Hayden Fry’s famous 1985 team.
But then, back-to-back losses sandwiched around an idle week sent emotions crashing to earth again. As outside noise roared, this group dug deep and found a way to win four straight November games (all decided by 10 points or less) to get to 10-2 and received the unlikely upset help it needed to capture the outright Big Ten West Division championship.
And this season, a third rally from adversity has been staged. After a 3-4 start, including 1-3 in conference play, there seemed to be little hope that this team, with the nation’s last-ranked offense, could make a bowl game … let alone accomplish something bigger. Yet after a 54-10 loss at Ohio State, as Ferentz faced intense outside heat, he told reporters in Columbus he thought a rebound was not only possible but, “I believe it’s going to happen. But it’s up to us to make it happen.”
What gave him such confidence? This senior class of leaders was undoubtedly the top factor. Ferentz has been saying for 11 months that he believes in the character of players inside the building and he believes they are good football players.
So, behind a team that refused to give up − and that comes from a place of team leadership − the Hawkeyes have rattled off four straight wins. Three of those wins (Purdue, Wisconsin, Minnesota) came as underdogs. They got the improbable help they needed with three consecutive Illinois losses and now are a win against 3-8 Nebraska away from capturing a second straight West Division title and a spot in the Dec. 3 Big Ten championship game.
If Iowa (favored by 10½ points) could beat the Cornhuskers on Friday and return to Indianapolis, that might be the most impressive “get-off-the-mat” comeback of them all for this senior class.
“I don’t know anything about gambling, but I’m guessing if you put 10 bucks on us four weeks ago, you’d probably be (doing) OK,” Ferentz said after Saturday’s 13-10 victory at Minnesota, in which his defense gave up 312 rushing yards but still found a way to get two late turnovers to help set up Drew Stevens’ winning field goal. “I’m not advocating that, but it’d probably be a good deal. You’d probably have a hard time finding takers on that one, though.”
The list of seniors, which includes 11 walk-ons, is profound. Their contributions cannot be measured in on-field statistics.
“They lead the way. More than anything, they set the standard," said redshirt sophomore defensive lineman Lukas Van Ness. "Coach (Kelvin) Bell has a quote that you need a model, not a critic. Those seniors are models. They show us the way that you’ve got to act around the building. … That’s why we’ve been able to produce these last four or five weeks."
Here are a few words on some of the names you know.
Where would this team be without the January proclamations from Jack Campbell, Sam LaPorta and Riley Moss that they would put the NFL on hold and return for the 2022 Hawkeyes?
All Campbell has done is become a Butkus Award finalist while dominating at middle linebacker (with a Big Ten-best 110 tackles) for a defense that leads FBS in yards-per-play allowed (4.01). LaPorta (program-record 148 catches for a tight end) has been the best player on an offense that has had to scrap and claw for everything it’s gotten. Moss showed at Minnesota why he is the reigning Big Ten defensive back of the year, headily breaking up a late slant pass that Campbell intercepted. If Iowa wins the West, that play will be the reason.
Those three have been gameday captains all year. The fourth, safety Kaevon Merriweather, has been a beacon of leadership (particularly during the racial-bias tumult) and is playing the best football of his life.
Central Iowa-grown defensive ends Joe Evans (Ames) and John Waggoner (Dowling Catholic) have been instrumental fixtures for years. Evans has more sacks than any active Hawkeye (18), and Waggoner will make his 26th consecutive start Friday.
Staying on the D-line, a shout-out is deserved for reliable defensive tackle Noah Shannon, whose undersized tenacity, durability and leadership are the perfect examples of what makes this team tick.
Linebacker Seth Benson would get a lot more acclaim if not for close friend and on-field sidekick Campbell. Benson will make his 33rd career start Friday and will leave Iowa City with more than 250 tackles to his name.
A former linebacker in Monte Pottebaum has given his all (and his body) to this program as a former walk-on turned punishing fullback.
Cornerback Terry Roberts has had hard luck with injuries, yet he always sets a positive example. He’ll be remembered as one of the best special-teamers of the Ferentz era.
When Jack Plumb lost his starting job entering the season, he kept grinding. So when Iowa’s struggling offensive line needed mid-season stabilization, he was ready. Iowa is 4-0 since Plumb has returned as the starting right tackle.
When Nico Ragaini (116 career receptions) delivered a 44-yard touchdown in the final minutes vs. Penn State last year, he joined the Warren Holloway category of memorable moments by a Hawkeye wide receiver. His return to full health from a foot injury has been crucial to this late-season run.
The first player to reach the Floyd of Rosedale trophy on Saturday? Safety Dallas Craddieth, a former four-star recruit whose on-field contributions have been limited to special teams. But Craddieth never quit, never transferred and made it to senior day. He finished the race, as Ferentz likes to say.
And no quarterback has taken more arrows in the Ferentz era, but Spencer Petras heads into his (presumed) final game at Kinnick with a 20-10 record as a starter. He's played his best football during this four-game win streak. Petras deserves nothing but rousing cheers in Friday's pregame ceremony.
“I’m just proud to be a part of it. Just a lot of really great guys, really good players," Petras said. "Been through a lot together, going back to 2020 and everything that was that year. Last year, this year just been through a lot. But couldn’t ask for a better group of guys to be with.”
You’ll hear other names on Friday, too: kicker Lucas Amaya, running back Nolan Donald, lineman Tyler Endres, lineman Matt Fagan, lineman Taylor Fox, tight end Jackson Frericks, defensive back Thomas Hartlieb, linebacker Logan Klemp, fullback Turner Pallissard, punter Nick Phelps, fullback Johnny Plewa, defensive tackle Louie Stec and defensive lineman Witte.
“Being able to swarm with guys in their fourth and fifth year, it really means a lot," Campbell said. "I never really thought about it being my last time, but it just goes fast. And I’m going to cherish every moment.”
They’ve all been through a lot, probably even more than any of us can comprehend.
They’ve shown an impressive resiliency, time and time again.
And as we’ll see Friday, their Hawkeye stories aren’t quite finished yet.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 28 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.