The University of Iowa has fielded a varsity football team since 1889. I’m here to tell you that we are all enjoying a truly unique treat this football season, because none of the prior 119 seasons have been as exciting as the current 2009 season.
Go ahead and let that sink in a bit: This is the most exciting Iowa football season...ever.
I personally feel like I can offer a somewhat unique perspective on this, as I just recently authored a book on the history of Iowa Football—The 50 Greatest Plays in Iowa Hawkeyes Football History, published by Triumph Books.
As chronicled in the book, there certainly have been very special autumns on the gridiron in Iowa City in the past:
* Coach Howard Jones led the Hawks to back-to-back undefeated seasons in 1921 and 1922.
* The legendary Nile Kinnick and new coach Dr. Eddie Anderson led a memorable group of previously unheralded “iron men” to national prominence in the fall of 1939, with Kinnick capturing the Heisman Trophy in the process.
* The great Forest Evashevski treated Hawkdom to two decisive Rose Bowl victories in the late 1950s, including recognition from the Football Writers Association as a National Champion in 1958.
* The legendary Hayden Fry presided over no less than three Rose Bowl teams during his colorful tenure during the 1980s and 1990s.
* Finally, Hayden protégé Kirk Ferentz has kept the great Iowa football tradition as strong as ever during many memorable campaigns in the 2000s, including two Big Ten Titles, a BCS bowl game out of nowhere during the 2002 season, and an improbable finish to the Capital One Bowl on New Year’s Day 2005.
Yet none of the memorable and exciting past seasons taken as a whole can hold a candle to the entire body of work included so far in the 2009 season.
It started right from the opening bell at Kinnick Stadium, when Iowa needed not one, but two blocked field goals in the final seconds to hold off a gritty Northern Iowa team 17-16. It was the first time in the history of NCAA football that a game had ever ended on two consecutive blocked field goals. Iowa started 1-0, and that was all that mattered.
Relatively comfortable wins at Iowa State and at home against Arizona preceded the Big Ten opener at then-No. 5 Penn State. It was a memorable game played at night in a rainstorm in front of a national TV audience.
The Hawks got off to an inauspicious start, giving up a long TD pass to Penn St. on the Lions’ opening offensive play from scrimmage. Penn St. extended the lead to 10-0 before Iowa began to methodically claw its way back.
The Hawks took the lead for good at 11-10 on a blocked punt by defensive lineman Adrian Clayborn—a play that amazingly wasn’t even a designed punt block. The Hawks dominated play the rest of the way, forcing three Penn St. turnovers in the fourth quarter on their way to a 21-10 come-from-behind victory.
The Hawks took care of business at Kinnick against Arkansas St. before entertaining once mighty Michigan on homecoming. It was another night game and another performance for the ages.
Ricky Stanzi’s first pass was intercepted and returned for a very quick TD and 7-0 Michigan lead. However, Stanzi showed remarkable resiliency—a theme that would come up time and time again in reference to this team—in leading the Hawks to an eventual 30-28 win to run their record to 6-0.
This Iowa team was just getting started.
The next week, at Wisconsin, Iowa again spotted the Badgers a 10-0 lead before following the same script at Penn St. three weeks earlier. Iowa scored the game’s final 20 points to win 20-10. The team battled not only the Badgers, but also the flu bug in a gutty win.
A trip to East Lansing, MI was next—another night game, no less. In a typical down and dirty Big Ten grudge match, points were at a premium. But when the Spartans scored the game’s first touchdown to take a 13-9 lead with just 1:37 remaining, it looked awfully grim for the Hawks.
Led by Stanzi, the offense put together one of the more memorable drives in Hawkeye history, which culminated with a quick slant TD pass to Marvin McNutt on the game’s final play. The Hawks had reached a school record 8-0 start. Could it actually get even more exciting than this?
Stunningly, it would the next week at home vs. Indiana.
It was Halloween, and the ghosts and goblins were wreaking havoc with the Iowa team as it sleepwalked through a sluggish first half. Indiana was threatening to build on a 21-7 lead when it faced third down and goal deep in Iowa territory.
What happened next is one of the flukiest plays in the history of college football. Blitzing Iowa safety Tyler Sash was able to grab a football in the offensive backfield that pinballed off at least four different players after leaving Indiana quarterback Ben Chappell’s hand and return it 86 yards the other way for a touchdown.
This single play perhaps epitomized Iowa’s first nine games of the season unlike any other.
That possible 14-point swing was a major difference maker. However, even after that play, Stanzi managed to throw two more interceptions later in the third quarter. So things were still looking bleak when Iowa took over for its first offensive possession in the fourth quarter, still trailing 24-14.
Somehow, Stanzi was able to flip the switch as he hooked up with McNutt and Derrell Johnson-Koulianos for TD passes of 92 yards and 66 yards on back to back plays, no less. Iowa was on its way to a 9-0 start.
There just weren’t enough superlatives in the dictionary to characterize what these Hawks were doing. Iowa radio color commentator Ed Podolak joked that he needed to be sure his heart medication was close by in the booth. It certainly had been that type of season!
Not sure that you could characterize the Northwestern game as particularly exciting, as Iowa suffered its first loss of the season, but it did set up probably the most exciting game situation of the season the following week at Ohio St. Of course, it was the injury to Stanzi that would set the stage for probably the most exciting game of the year.
Ohio State’s win over Penn State, coupled with Iowa’s loss to Northwestern, meant that the winner of the Iowa-Ohio St. game would be guaranteed the Big Ten’s slot in the BCS—almost assuredly a Rose Bowl bid. Seldom-used redshirt freshman James Vandenberg was thrust into duty at the Big Horseshoe, and boy, did he ever put on a show.
Coming in as 17-point underdogs, Iowa battled to a 10-10 tie into the fourth quarter before the Bucks rattled off consecutive touchdowns to extend to a 24-10 lead with 11:11 to play. In yet another key play of the season, Johnson-Koulianos returned the ensuing kickoff 99 yards to pull Iowa to within a touchdown.
Vandenberg would lead Iowa on a long TD drive to tie the score with just over two minutes to play on a beautiful fade pattern to McNutt.
Sadly, the magic ended in overtime as Iowa could not advance the ball beyond the 25 and had to settle for a desperation Hail Mary pass on fourth and forever. A 39-yard field goal from Ohio St. would send the Buckeyes to their first Rose Bowl since the 1996 season.
The 50 Greatest Plays book was published before the 2009 season began. I rarely do a media interview on the book these days when I’m not asked which plays that have happened since the book was published might warrant inclusion in a future update of the list of 50 Greatest Plays.
I won’t get into those details here, but suffice to say, there is no shortage of plays from the 2009 season to choose from. I would suspect that at least a half dozen or so plays from the 2009 season belong in the list of the top 50.
You put all of the above into a big pot and stir it up, and what do you get? I don’t think there is any question that this is the most exciting Iowa Football season ever— even though this season may not result in a Big Ten Championship.
However, I don’t think that exciting football necessarily needs to coincide with championship football. This 2009 team is a champion in my book, even if they aren’t able to make that claim in the official record books.
You know what the best part of the 2009 season is? The fact that there is still one game remaining against Minnesota at home, followed by a bowl game to be determined. I personally can’t wait to see what this group of fine young men comes up with next.