IOWA CITY, Iowa – Now in his 17th season as head coach, Kirk Ferentz has spent over a quarter century with the Iowa football program.
He also coached the Iowa offensive line under Hayden Fry for nine seasons from 1981-89, making this his 26th season with the Hawkeyes overall.
Ferentz has been a part of 20 bowl games, five Big Ten championships and six double-digit win seasons as a Hawkeye.
But only three times has Ferentz been a part of a 5-0 start with the Hawkeyes, including just once as head coach in 2009. The other two times came in 1985 and 1986 when Ferentz was coaching the Iowa offensive line.
Those three teams combined to finish 30-7, including victories in the 1986 Holiday Bowl and in the 2010 Orange Bowl. The 1985 team lost to UCLA in the Rose Bowl, but was ranked first nationally in the polls for five weeks during the regular season.
I bring all this up because a victory over Wisconsin in the Big Ten opener on Saturday would make Iowa 5-0 for just the fourth time with Ferentz affiliated with the Hawkeyes and for just the fifth time since 1961.
Iowa started 5-0 in 1995, but Ferentz was an NFL assistant coach at that time. The 1995 squad also lost its next four games and finished 8-4 overall.
So if there wasn’t already enough riding on Saturday’s showdown in Madison, Wis., the chance for Iowa to be 5-0 is another intriguing storyline because it doesn’t happen very often. A victory over the 19th-ranked Badgers also would put Iowa in its best position to be ranked in the polls for the first time since the 2010 season. It would make the Hawkeyes relevant again, at least for a week because it doesn’t take as long to lose relevance as it does to earn it.
“I think we’ve got a good football team right now,” Ferentz said Tuesday. “We’ll certainly learn more about our football team over the next eight contests, next nine weeks just like every team in the conference will.”
“We’ve got our work cut out for us right now. We’re rolling through our preparation, and need to really have a good week here to give ourselves a chance to compete the way we want to on Saturday.”
Iowa has made it one-third of the way through its regular-season schedule undefeated, but many questions still remain, partly because of the schedule. Iowa’s first four opponents have combined for just one victory against a BCS team, that being Pittsburgh’s 24-7 victory over Akron on Sept. 12 in Akron, Ohio.
But it’s fair to say that the current Iowa team just looks better than last season’s team and has the statistics to prove it, along with a victory over Iowa State for just the second time in the last five seasons.
Iowa is averaging 192.6 rushing yards per game this season, which is nearly 30 yards more than last season’s 163.1 per-game average. Opponents also are averaging just 84.0 rushing yards per game this season after averaging 168.3 yards last season.
Combine those statistics with C.J. Beathard’s impact at quarterback and you see why Iowa is knocking on the door of being 5-0.
It’ll take some serious knocking, though, to break down Wisconsin’s door.
The Badgers under first-year head coach Paul Chryst haven’t been the dominant rushing force that we’re used to seeing since Barry Alvarez rebuilt the program in the early 1990s.
But never underestimate Wisconsin’s ability to run the football. Redshirt freshman Taiwan Deal had a breakout performance against Hawaii last Saturday, rushing for 147 yards on 26 carries during the 28-0 victory at Camp Randall Stadium.
In fairness, starting running Corey Clement barely has played this season because of an injury, and he is not expected to play on Saturday.
This hardly is going out on a limb, but whichever team has the most success running on Saturday should prevail.
Beathard and his cohorts will be matched against a Wisconsin defense that is allowing just 82.8 rushing yards per game and features two of the Big Ten’s best linebackers in senior Joe Schobert and junior Vince Biegel. The Badgers also are ranked fourth nationally in scoring defense at 9.5 points per game.
“They’re really an outstanding duo, and to play that kind of defense, the kind of defense they do, it really helps if you have two outside linebackers that are disruptive, and they both are very disruptive,” Ferentz said of Schobert and Biegel.
This will be without question the biggest test on the biggest stage for Beathard, who leads the Big Ten in passing efficiency (157.8) and is third in the conference in passing yards at 240.5 per game.
The Iowa bandwagon has been adding passengers all season, but the numbers likely would skyrocket should the Hawkeyes prevail in Madison for the first time since 2009.
Wisconsin has won the last three games against Iowa in 2010, 2013 and 2014. All three games were played at Kinnick Stadium and two of the three games were decided by two points or less.
The exception was in 2013 when Wisconsin rolled to a 28-9 victory.
“I think we’re a lot better than that team was in 2013,” Beathard said. “It’s this year, it’s 2015. We just have to go out there and play our best football.”
Do that and we could see a rarity on Saturday – a 5-0 Iowa football team.
Even that won’t be cause for a huge celebration, though, because the Hawkeyes were 5-1 midway through last season and that certainly didn’t end well for Iowa. But the Hawkeyes weren’t 5-0 last season. So maybe that’s the key.
Iowa football 5-0 starts since 1961
1985 – Won its first seven games before losing 22-13 at Ohio State; finished 10-2 overall
1986 – Won its first five games before losing 20-17 at Michigan, finished 9-3 overall
1995 – Won its first five games before losing four in a row, beginning with a 41-27 loss to Penn State at Kinnick Stadium; finished 8-4 overall
2009 – Won its first nine game before losing 17-10 to Northwestern at Kinnick Stadium; finished 11-2 overall