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The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

Iowa football Week 12 column | Hawkeyes’ Big Ten West title tangible proof of finding beauty in the struggle

The win over Illinois wasn’t perfect by any means, but instead a classic example of what has been an uphill battle sustained by culture.
Cody Blissett
Fan’s turn on their flashlights at the start of the fourth quarter during a football game between Iowa and Illinois at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023. The Hawkeyes defeated the Fighting Illini, 15-13.

Remember my line on Iowa’s season hanging by a thread? Well, that thread was officially tied up on Saturday, as Iowa secured a spot in the Big Ten Championship next month, earning its third Big Ten West title in program history. 

After Hawkeye running back Kaleb Johnson’s 30-yard touchdown dash, defensive end Joe Evans’ pass breakup, and quarterback Deacon Hill’s kneel, Iowa’s race to Indianapolis had come to a merciful end. The Big Ten West’s teams had been limping throughout the season, never able to find true consistency, all except Iowa.

Seemingly running uphill faced with 40-mile-per-hour headwinds, the Hawkeyes brushed off gusts of on-field injuries and off-field distractions, converting reliable ugly numbers into mind-baffling wins. Is there true beauty in that? Look no further than the face of head coach Kirk Ferentz. 

To my astonishment, Ferentz didn’t shed a tear during his postgame press conference, but for his on-field interview, as well as lockerroom videos on social media, the coach’s emotion was palpable. Receiving the game ball from defensive coordinator Phil Parker, the coaches’ eyes glistened with tears. 

A defensive coordinator operating under the pressure of uncommonly high standards and a head coach navigating gambling issues, season-ending injuries to four starters, and the dismissal of his own son from the staff. Such an exchange highlighted just how important the two were this season. 

After the first injury domino fell in the form of tight end Luke Lachey,  the Iowa defense allowed at least two touchdowns just twice, yielding over 12 points in that span. Over the last five games, the Hawkeyes have granted just two total touchdowns. As has been the case in recent years, the Iowa defense was doing the heavy lifting, finding seemingly endless depth as last year’s key players were lost to the NFL Draft. 

Such a pattern was emblematic of the game against Illinois, as Iowa allowed one touchdown and 13 points to an Illini squad averaging 30 points per game over their last four contests. Making the highlight plays were guys like Sebastian Castro on a shoestring tackle,  Joe Evans on a safety, and Jay Higgins on just being a tackling machine. The Hawkeyes lost players on all three levels of the defense last season, but down the stretch, such a fact became less and less noticeable.  

What did become more and more blatant as the season went on was Iowa’s epic struggle on the offensive side of the ball. One would think a dominant defense would overshadow this, but that’s hard to do when the Drive to 325 was still around, or now when offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz is a lame-duck coordinator who just spent his last game at Kinnick on the sidelines. 

With the exception of a 400-yard outburst against Rutgers, Iowa’s growth of the offense hasn’t been as smooth as that of the defense. Yes, new quarterback Deacon Hill is miles from his 6-for-21 passing performance in his first start against Purdue, but the offense is nowhere near an average FBS level. Heading into Saturday, Iowa ranked 130th in the nation in total offense, and I doubt that standing will change after a 15-point, 281-yard performance. 

But now I’m getting too far from my point. For as cliche as the term is, the Hawkeyes just don’t quit. As Evans put it after Iowa’s worst loss of the season against Penn State, no one pointed fingers. Instead, they distinguish themselves from past teams with trust and resilience. 

The culture at Iowa is far beyond ‘Next man up.’ It’s about playing for causes beyond individual stats, or even team performance. Where else does an offensive coordinator who’s been relieved of his future duties, and who by accounts did not have a good game Saturday, be doused in Powerade from his players?

“All those other teams, we kept fighting, but this [2023] team, we just keep coming … I’m so proud of these guys. I can’t say it enough,” Evans said postgame. “I wish you guys were there during the week so you can see what I’m saying. Whether it be in the film room, on the practice field, these guys battle and fight.” 

Until media members can actually watch what occurs during the week (which will be never), we’ll take your word for it, Joe. You’ve got the hat and hardware to back it up. 

Compared to Iowa’s rivalry trophies, the Big Ten West title pales in comparison based on external features. Yet while it may not resemble a pig, a bull, or any other Midwest iconography, the hardware represents something far more, especially this season. From here on out, as the conference expands and divisions are abolished, the title will be reduced to a “piece of metal,” but for the Hawkeyes, will be tangible proof that adversity is never an immovable obstacle. 

And before you ask, since no one else will be using the trophy in the future, can Iowa just keep it? Would go great with a 2023 Big Ten title. I’m kidding on that part of course. The thread may be tied, but doesn’t have enough strength to bear two conference trophies. 

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About the Contributors
Matt McGowan
Matt McGowan, Pregame Editor
he/him/his Matt McGowan is The Daily Iowan's Pregame Editor. He is a sophomore double majoring in journalism and mass communications and American studies with a minor in sport studies.  This is his second year with the DI
Cody Blissett
Cody Blissett, Visuals Editor
Cody Blissett is a visual editor at The Daily Iowan. He is a third year student at the University of Iowa studying cinema and screenwriting. This is his first year working for The Daily Iowan.