Remembering the 2009 Iowa football team through the players’ eyes
Ten years ago, Iowa had one of the greatest football seasons in program history. Now, players from that 2009 team look back on an unforgettable season and an unforgettable drive.
October 24, 2019
“Here’s the snap. Stanzi on a quick slant has McNutt. Caught, touchdown Iowa! Marvin McNutt on the catch, on the final play of the game! The Hawkeyes defeat Michigan State, 15-13!”
Nearly 10 years ago to the day — Oct. 24, 2009 — Gary Dolphin made that radio call in East Lansing, Michigan, to describe a play Hawkeye football fans need no help remembering. It was the signature play of one of the most memorable seasons in Iowa football history.
The 2009 Iowa football team won 11 games with the season culminating in what was perhaps the program’s most significant win in a bowl game since the 1959 Rose Bowl — a 24-14 victory over Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl.
The team — and the seemingly never-ending amount of talented players from that roster — have achieved a near folk-hero status in Iowa City. Now, key members of that legendary Iowa team look back on the unforgettable drive that led to an unforgettable season.
Iowa was down 13-9 with 1:32 remaining in the fourth quarter of its 2009 contest against Michigan State, but the team was not fazed. The Spartans had just scored a go-ahead touchdown and were fighting to end the No. 7 Hawkeyes’ perfect season.
“I remember chuckling on the sideline like, ‘All right, well, this is what we have to overcome,’” quarterback Ricky Stanzi said. “That was what was so great about that team is that we didn’t flinch. Everybody had the same mindset.”
The Hawkeyes had a habit of winning games that went down to the wire in 2009. They outlasted Northern Iowa, 17-16, in Week 1 after two blocked field goals late in the game, while also pulling out a 24-21 victory over Arkansas State, and a 30-28 win against Michigan earlier in the year.
“I remember being in the huddle and just knowing somehow, someway we were going to pull it off,” tight end Tony Moeaki said. “We’re in a two-minute offense at that point. We had been practicing that constantly against our defense. I think in our own heads we’re like, ‘If we can do this against our defense, we can do it against anybody.’”
Marvin McNutt, whose name from this night forward would forever be associated with the touchdown he would score, had not been on the field for most of the game. He was still nursing a thumb injury that kept him out from the Wisconsin game the week before.
However, when Colin Sandeman went down with an injury, Iowa was left short-handed at receiver.
“I got in like one play in the first half,” McNutt said. “Right before that drive, we were getting our team together, and my receivers coach Erik Campbell was talking to me and Keenan [Davis] like, ‘You boys be ready. Stay by me. Keenan, you’re going to start the drive and Marv, you just be ready.’”
McNutt had not been involved in the passing game heading into that final drive, going without a catch. Stanzi — the team’s Roy J. Carver Most Valuable Player on offense that season — had completed only 7-of-18 passes for 78 yards to that point.
McNutt, understandably, wanted to be on the field. At the last second, he got his chance.
“I’m just like all right, trying to keep my mind happy, trying to stay in the moment,” he said. “But at the same time, I’m pissed because I wanted to be out there. All of a sudden right before we break the sideline, coach Campbell grabs Keenan and then grabs me and says, ‘Marvin, go.’”
Stanzi hit McNutt on an “in” route on the first play of the final drive, and Iowa picked up 15 yards and a first down. A 21-yard completion to Trey Stross three plays later set Iowa up at the Michigan State 31-yard line with 41 seconds remaining.
On each of the next three plays, Stanzi targeted Derrell Johnson-Koulianos. The first play was a fade route that Johnson-Koulianos appeared to catch right as he crossed the goal line on the right sideline. However, the pass was broken up by a Michigan State defender.
Two plays later, Stanzi threw an interception while targeting Johnson-Koulianos on a play that was negated by defensive holding. The penalty set up first-and-goal on Michigan State’s seven-yard line with 15 seconds remaining in the game.
The following three plays all concluded with the same result for Iowa: an incomplete pass. After the incompletion on third down, at least one Hawkeye — momentarily — thought the game was over.
“I remember sitting on the sideline,” linebacker Pat Angerer said. “I think it was third down and we missed on third down. And I thought it was fourth down, so I’m getting ready to walk across the field and shake everybody’s hand and [A.J.] Edds was like, ‘Get back dude, what the hell are you doing?’ So, I was glad we had another shot at it.”
Iowa took a timeout after what Angerer initially perceived to the game’s final play, setting up fourth-and-goal from the seven-yard line with only two seconds remaining.
“We all go into the huddle,” McNutt said. “Tony, Trey, DJK, Rick, coach O’Keefe, coach Campbell, we were all in there. We were all talking like, ‘What’s the next play?’ Everyone is throwing in their two cents — this is what I see, this is what we could do. Coach O’Keefe is talking to Rick about what things we could do that’s quick, because you know they are going to come with a zero blitz.”
The pressure Michigan State was about to put on Iowa with a blitz meant the Hawkeyes needed a quick-developing play to avoid the pass rush.
McNutt had a play call in mind.
“I go, ‘Hey, I can win on a slant,’” he said. “[O’Keefe] goes, ‘What did you say?’ And I said I can win on a slant. This guy is playing me outside leverage twice on the last two plays. I can win on a slant — he’s going to jump outside. Coach O’Keefe goes, ‘OK, we’re going to draw it up, we’re going to get Marvin by himself. You know they are going to come with the zero blitz, so throw it to him on the slant.’”
The play was called, now it just came down to executing it.
Iowa lined up on the left hash of Michigan State’s 7-yard line. Stanzi went under center and sent Moeaki in motion to the right side of the field, leaving McNutt one-on-one to the left.
“Next thing you know, boom, the ball is snapped and sure enough they bring everybody, they bring the house,” McNutt said. “I do my little move, the guy jumps outside half a step, I take it in and see Rick throw it. I see all the linemen’s hands trying to block it. I see the ball, I grab it. I’m holding onto it, like hopefully I’m in the end zone. Sure enough I look up and two guys are on top of me, but I see the referee holding his hands up. Touchdown.”
The full-capacity crowd at Spartan Stadium, which had been rocking right before the play, was now silent, clutching their heads trying to process what just happened. Except, of course, for the section of Iowa fans at the game and the mob of players piling on McNutt in the end zone.
“The whole team is on the field, I’m down at the bottom of the pile dying,” McNutt said. “After that, it’s so much of a blur. I just remember at the end of the game, we all are going into the locker room, me and [Stanzi] embrace into a hug as I enter. Then, the whole team goes nuts and we’re just celebrating. My voice was gone the whole night.”
The celebration lasted into the next week for some Iowa fans, who couldn’t help but recognize the insane fashion in which the Hawkeyes won their latest game.
“We went into school the next week, into one of the lecture halls,” McNutt said. “We walk in — and I want to say Rick and I had the same class — and the whole class just erupted and clapped.”
Ten years later, the Stanzi-to-McNutt touchdown still brings a happy grin to the face of an Iowa football fan. Both seemingly can’t hold a conversation with a Hawkeye fan without the play coming up.
A walk-off play is a surreal experience, regardless of the sport. Stanzi, McNutt, and the rest of the Iowa team stepped up when it mattered late, a theme from that 2009 season.
“Nearly every time somebody stepped up,” Stanzi said. “Whether it’s Adrian [Clayborn] blocking a punt or Marvin getting open on the slant or [Tyler] Sash giving us a spark with an interception in the Indiana game.”
There are many remarkable moments from that 2009 season, but the game-winning touchdown against the Spartans tends to stand out the most.
The game came down to the wire, but luckily for Iowa, it had the players and coaches to earn the win — including Stanzi under center.
“One of the best things about that season is knowing that we had Rick Stanzi,” Angerer said. “Knowing that we were never out of a fight, never out of a game. We always had faith in him. Knowing that he had a little under two minutes to get some points, we knew we weren’t out of the fight, and in good old Rick fashion, he got the damn thing done.”
Iowa’s 2009 season had its share of highlights.
The Stanzi-to-McNutt touchdown. A 35-3 drubbing of Iowa State. Adrian Clayborn’s blocked punt that secured Iowa’s upset over No. 5 Penn State in Beaver Stadium.
These moments — and the many other highlight-reel plays from that historical season — were all leading up to one thing: the Orange Bowl.
“It was special,” Moeaki said. “When we actually got to Miami, those practices were as intense as training camp practices. We were battling. We didn’t care who we were playing, we were just ready to go. And that’s a credit to coach Ferentz; he’s the best coach in the country. To do it for coach Ferentz, that was as much motivation as any. We wanted to do it for him.”
Iowa defeated No. 9 Georgia Tech in the program’s biggest bowl-game win in decades.
McNutt opened the game’s scoring with a four-yard touchdown reception from Stanzi in the first quarter. Iowa never relinquished that lead.
“This is a big-time BCS bowl,” McNutt said. “We knew what we were too, as far as how good of a team we were. We felt like we were the best team in the nation that year. It was huge because we were part of something bigger. To do that for Iowa, I felt like that was my job, to do whatever my team asks me to do. I’m all about winning, and that’s what we felt like.”
The Yellow Jackets featured an unorthodox option offense led by a dominant rushing attack. The Iowa defense suffocated Georgia Tech, allowing only 143 rushing yards, down from the 295 yards it had averaged on the season.
“Coach [Norm] Parker, he had a great game plan for us,” Angerer said. “From the first practice, him just sort of breaking it down and explaining it to us very simply, we knew that we were going to be well-prepared. It also helps when you have Adrian Clayborn and the other defensive linemen that we had. That makes things pretty easy as a linebacker, just kind of run around and not get blocked.”
Ending the season with a victory in the Orange Bowl was a surreal experience for Iowa. It was a celebration, not only of what the players achieved on the field, but what the program had been through to get to this point.
“It meant a lot just because we wanted to give the coaches that win,” Angerer said. “They went down to the Orange Bowl in 2002 and lost to USC. We wanted to go out on a high note. Seeing the joy on the coaches’ faces, on Norm Parker’s face, all of them, it was just amazing. There was a lot of hard work that went into it from everybody, and for it to finally turn out well meant a lot to us all.”
The Orange Bowl may still be Ferentz’s signature win as Iowa’s head coach. The impact he had on that 2009 team — and all the other teams he has coached — is obvious.
“Coach Ferentz’s resume speaks for itself,” Moeaki said. “He’s the best coach in the country, just awesome to play for. He’ll get after you if you’re doing something wrong, but we just loved playing for him. I thought what jumped off the film, especially in the Orange Bowl game, is how much everyone loves playing for coach Ferentz.”
Whether it feels like it or not, it has been 10 years since the 2009 Iowa football team last swarmed Kinnick together.
To honor the anniversary, the Hawkeyes brought members of the 2009 team back for the Oct. 12 matchup against Penn State. Iowa also named Stanzi as the honorary captain for the game against the Nittany Lions.
“It was a great experience,” Stanzi said. “It was first-class by the staff and administration to bring us all back and see the new complex and be able to hang out with each other.”
Stanzi accompanied the team captains out to midfield for the coin toss before the game, and he also participated in an interview on the video board. Hawkeye fans welcomed their former signal-caller back with enthusiasm, like they were seeing an old friend for the first time in years.
For Stanzi, it was an emotional experience and a reminder of everything he’d been a part of during his time in Iowa City.
“Just to be back with the coaches, talking to them and the team was really full circle for me,” he said. “I remember listening to those honorary captains, so I was absolutely blessed to have gotten that nod from coach Ferentz. He had a lot of other people he could have picked, so for him to pick me was very special.”