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

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

‘Story of our season’: Iowa football blocks outside noise en route to Big Ten Championship berth

Despite the Hawkeyes’ odds after losing four starters to injury, they are 10-2 and playing in Indianapolis against the Michigan Wolverines on Saturday.
Emily Nyberg
Iowa kicker Marshall Meeder receives the Heroes Trophy after kicking the game winning field goal during a football game between No. 17 Iowa and Nebraska at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb., on Friday, Nov. 23, 2023. The Hawkeyes defeated the Cornhuskers 13-10.

The 2023 Iowa football team is one head coach Kirk Ferentz will talk about “10 years from now.”

And it’s not because of what this year’s squad has achieved — but how they managed to do it.

Enduring a preseason gambling scandal that has kept defensive lineman Noah Shannon out the entire season, losing four key starters to injury, and dismissal of an offensive coordinator after this season is enough for most teams to make excuses and admit defeat.

But giving up was never on Iowa’s radar.

The 10-2 Hawkeyes are playing in the Big Ten Championship against Michigan on Dec. 2, a rematch of the 2021 conference title game.

“All you can do is show up and try to do your best, give it an honest day’s effort, and have a good attitude, and then you never quit. You never quit. That’s what the guys are doing,” Ferentz said.

The path to Indy

Heading into this season, expectations were high for the Hawkeyes.

Picking up Michigan transfers Cade McNamara and Erick All, along with wideout Kaleb Brown in the offseason gave Iowa fans hope the offense would overcome its past struggles.

On Iowa’s second offensive drive of the season against Utah State, those hopes for a rejuvenated offense looked promising.

McNamara threw a 36-yard dart to Anderson for the first touchdown pass on a season-opening-drive in the Ferentz era. On the next possession, McNamara drove the Hawkeyes 75 yards and connected with All for a six-point score on fourth-and-goal.

Iowa then marched into Ames the next week and reclaimed the Cy-Hawk Trophy. It wasn’t a great game from McNamara in his Cy-Hawk debut, but the Hawkeye defense and special teams came in clutch, something the two units did consistently this season, to seal a 20-13 win.

A blocked field goal by defensive lineman Logan Lee on Iowa State’s first drive, a pick-six by defensive back Sebastian Castro to swing the momentum back on Iowa’s side after a McNamara interception, and a stop on fourth-and-1 with just over a minute remaining granted Ferentz his 200th career win.

Heading into Week 3 against Western Michigan, Iowa, was without its top running back Kaleb Johnson, who suffered a lower leg injury near the end of the contest against the Cyclones.

But the running back room didn’t break a sweat.

Leshon Williams carried the ball 12 times for 145 yards and was aided by rookies Kamari Moulton and Terrell Washington Jr. The efficient ground game against the Cowboys was crucial, as star tight end Luke Lachey broke his right ankle trying to complete a catch on third down early in the game.

The Hawkeyes went into Happy Valley the next week and were shut out for the first time since 2000. Iowa’s defense held strong in the first half, and the Hawkeyes went into halftime down, 10-0. But the ‘D’ couldn’t get off the field in the final 30 minutes, and Iowa suffered a 31-0 blowout. Iowa’s 76 total yards against Penn State were the second-fewest in Ferentz’s tenure, and morale was at an all-time low leaving State College.

How would Iowa respond?

By winning seven of its last eight games.

Iowa rebounded from the Penn State loss with a thrilling 26-16 win over Michigan State thanks to a 70-yard punt return touchdown by Cooper DeJean with just over four minutes remaining.

But that win didn’t come without losing McNamara, who went down on the turf after scrambling under pressure on second down deep in Iowa territory. He tore his left ACL, and backup Deacon Hill was thrust into the starting position in the first quarter.

Hill, a Wisconsin transfer, hadn’t played meaningful snaps since high school, so his first few games under center weren’t pretty.

As he settled into the offense, other playmakers stepped up to fill the void.

Johnson returned from injury against Purdue and continued his hot streak against the Boilermakers with 134 yards on the ground, including a 67-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. Johnson rushed for a career 200 yards in the Hawkeyes’ 24-3 win over the Boilermakers last season.

Iowa’s next test was against Wisconsin, who came into this season with a highly-touted Air Raid offense under new head coach Luke Fickell.

That offense had no success against the Hawkeye defense, largely due to a career game from defensive back Sebastian Castro on his 23rd birthday.

Castro recorded seven tackles, two tackles for loss, one pass breakup, and one interception en route to Iowa’s 15-6 win — the first time the Hawkeye defense held an opponent to under 10 points this season. They also held Wisconsin’s stout run game to just 96 rushing yards, with 87 of those yards coming from second-team All-Big Ten selection Braelon Allen.

Williams scored Iowa’s lone TD of the game when he exploded for an 82-yard run, finishing the contest with a season-high 174 yards. That play was one of the few offensive highlights, as the TE room was bitten by the injury bug once again against the Badgers.

On Iowa’s second offensive drive of the game, All caught a pass and was drilled in the knee by defensive end Cade McDonald. A torn ACL knocked Iowa’s next-best offensive weapon out for the season.

The next game against Minnesota was one Iowa fans, players, and coaches will never forget.

With under two minutes to go in the game, Iowa was trailing, 12-10. Minnesota punted the ball, and DeJean let it bounce before picking it up. He evaded a handful of Golden Gopher tacklers and dashed 54 yards into the end zone.

The energy inside Kinnick Stadium was electric, but it was all drained away in a matter of minutes.

After review, referees ruled that DeJean made an invalid fair catch signal, thus marking the ball dead at the spot of recovery. The Hawkeye offense lasted just two plays before throwing a game-sealing interception.

Ferentz was still heated about the outcome against the Gophers after the win against Nebraska.

“I don’t want to play that card. But I’m playing it right now. That’s still the most ridiculous thing I’ve seen the last, what, quarter century? Take that replay stuff and blow it up and start over again,” he said. “We try to make this stuff rocket science and it isn’t. It’s football.”

After the Minnesota game, Iowa Athletics announced that assistant coaches wouldn’t be available to talk to the media during the bye week like in past years. Two days later, Interim Athletic Director Beth Goetz said in a statement she informed offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz that “this is his last season with the program.”

This sparked controversy, not because of the decision itself, but because of the timing of the announcement. Many believed the players didn’t need yet another distraction thrown their way.

But as Hill stated after clinching the Big Ten West, adversity has been “the story of [Iowa’s] season.”

“Just keep punching forward each and every play, each and every day. Keep moving forward, one step in front of the other,” Hill said.

The Hawkeyes kept the winning train rolling with a 10-7 win over Northwestern at Wrigley Field, a game in which Iowa made clutch plays in all three phases to seal the victory.

Iowa defensive lineman Anterio Thompson blocked a punt in the third quarter to give the offense favorable field position. Hill took advantage, finding Ostrenga in the end zone for the tight end’s first career touchdown.

Then, the Iowa defense made a statement in the fourth quarter, stopping Northwestern four straight plays on the goal line to prevent the Wildcats from tying the game.

For Iowa defensive tackle Yahya Black, the loud cheers of Hawkeye fans who invaded Chicago let him know the defense got the job done.

“My sense was, I was one yard deep back here with my face in the dirt, so I really don’t know what’s going on,” he said. “But when you hear the roar of the crowd, then you know you did it … It’s crazy to know your fan base will travel.”

Northwestern ended up tying the game, but in retrospect, this arguably led to a turning point for the Iowa offense.

Hill, who ended the game with 10 completions for 65 yards, came up big in the final 1:50. He led a game-winning drive that included a  23-yard pass to Brown, the transfer’s first catch of the season, to put Drew Stevens in position to kick the go-ahead 53-yard field goal.

The Hawkeyes didn’t walk out of Wrigley without more injuries, though.

Center Logan Jones went down early against Northwestern. Tyler Elsbury filled in for him, and continued to do so in Iowa’s final three games, and didn’t miss a beat.

“After the way he’s played the last couple of weeks, he should be confident as hell,” Kirk Ferentz said of Elsbury after the Illinois game. “Sometimes good things come out of tough situations like that. It’s tough when you lose a good player like Logan Jones. But that’s the beauty of it all.”

Hill’s confidence under center in the final drive against Northwestern transferred into the next game against Rutgers. Hill completed 64.5 percent of his passes and threw for 223 of Iowa’s 402 total yards in a 22-0 win over the Scarlet Knights. The offense avoided going three-and-out the entire game, something that seemed routine in previous weeks.

The Iowa defense complimented the offense, yielding just 127 yards — the lowest number of yards Iowa has allowed against a Big Ten opponent since its 2019 matchup against Rutgers — en route to its first shutout of the season.

Iowa had its mojo back and was a win away from clinching the Big Ten West title.

Then, the Hawks were hit with another gut check.

DeJean, who had played nearly 400 snaps in coverage this season without giving up a touchdown, suffered a season-ending injury during a midweek practice.

The chances of Iowa clinching the division against Illinois suddenly became slimmer – at least that’s what people outside the football facility thought.

The Hawkeyes stayed focused on the task at hand and came away with a 15-13 win over the Fighting Illini in a game that was again won with crucial plays in all three phases. After a 46-yard punt by Taylor that was downed at Illinois’ 7-yard line, the Hawkeye defense managed to tackle the opposing quarterback in the end zone for a safety.

Deshaun Lee and Jermari Harris stepped up in the secondary instead of DeJean, and the defense totaled a season-high 13 pass breakups.

Iowa trailed for most of the game until Johnson, who had played very few snaps the previous two games, found a hole and dashed 30 yards for a touchdown with 4:43 left to put the Hawkeyes up two.

The Iowa ‘D’ had to make a stop and keep Illinois out of field goal range to seal the victory, and it did just that.

With the help of the deafening north end zone inside Kinnick, the Hawkeyes stopped the Fighting Illini on fourth-and-2. The offense came back out on the field, and Johnson burst up the middle for a first down on third-and-8. That was enough for Kirk Ferentz’s squad to get in victory formation and kneel out the remaining time on the clock.

Brian Ferentz was doused with a Gatorade bath by the players after the clock hit zero to cap off his final ride in Kinnick Stadium. Kirk and Brian embraced one another on the field, and the head coach highlighted that special moment with his son in his postgame press conference.

“So glad it turned out the way it did. I was proud of him,” Kirk said of his son. “He’s been admirable in the way he’s handled a very tough situation. And I’m not quite sure I know how he’s done it, but I’m really proud of him as a dad. And can’t say enough about that. But I do try to keep things separate. I’m really proud of him as a head coach.”

He also complimented Johnson for staying hard at work even though he wasn’t playing much.

The Hawks clinched the West, but they still had one more game to go, and it wasn’t one they were just going to waltz into expecting to win.

Nebraska prevented Iowa from making the Big Ten Championship last season, knocking off the Hawkeyes, 24-17, at Kinnick Stadium. This season’s contest was more than just a rivalry game, it was a revenge tour.

In the words of Hawkeye left tackle Mason Richman, “There’s no downside to winning” another game.

“We’re really competitive, and we want to go out there and compete and win,” Richman said. “Obviously, in a trophy game like this, there’s no reason not to play hard.”

It was a storybook ending to the regular season in Lincoln.

In a game with a kickoff temperature of 26 degrees, the Iowa offense froze in the second half, notching just two first downs, but it was assisted by a stout defense that gave the Hawkeyes a chance to ice the game in the final seconds.

Following a Nebraska punt, Iowa had the ball with 55 seconds left deep in its own territory, and on third down, Hill’s desperation pass to receiver Nico Ragaini was picked off by Nebraska’s Tommi Hill. Yet after the interception, Nebraska was penalized for a defensive holding to push the ball back 10 yards to its own 45-yard line.

Hill took responsibility for the costly giveaway, calling it a “miscommunication” between him and the wideouts. But he believed Iowa’s “best in the country”  defense would pick up the slack.

Just two plays later, the Hawkeye defense shocked the home crowd as Iowa defensive lineman Ethan Hurkett snagged a Purdy pass and returned the ball 10 yards to give the Hawkeyes another shot at an improbable victory.

Williams then ripped off a 22-yard run to put kicker Marshall Meeder in perfect position for a game-winning kick. Meeder nailed a 38-yarder in his Hawkeye debut to send his team home with 10 wins and a load of momentum heading into Indianapolis.

How does Iowa manage to prevail in claustrophobic situations?

Williams, who admitted he gets stressed out sometimes during tight games, said he and his Hawkeye teammates are “built different.”

But the players also frequently praised Kirk Ferentz for keeping them together through the adversity they faced.

“Coach Ferentz has us locked in like he always does,” Ragaini said. “This is the same Coach Ferentz I’ve known for the past six years. I’ve been hearing the same things over and over. In the beginning of my career, it used to go in one ear out the other ear, but now being older, I realized that when he speaks, it’s like listening to the smartest guy you’re ever going to listen to.”

Iowa is a heavy underdog against the third-ranked Michigan Wolverines on Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium.

But no one in the Iowa locker room is counting the Hawkeyes out.

“We have pushed ourselves, and now we have opportunities like this,” Higgins said. “Winning the Big Ten Championship has been a goal since day one. Last year, after a good bowl game win, we understood what our goals were, and that is winning the championship.”

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About the Contributors
Kenna Roering, Sports Editor
Kenna Roering is The Daily Iowan's sports editor. She is a junior at the University of Iowa majoring in journalism with a minor in sports and recreation management. Kenna previously worked as a sports reporter for men's wrestling and volleyball and was the summer sports editor in 2023. This is her second year with the DI.
Emily Nyberg, Visual Editor
Emily Nyberg is a second-year student at the University of Iowa double majoring in Journalism and Cinematic arts. Prior to her role as a Visual Editor, Emily was a Photojournalist, and a News Reporter covering higher education.