By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – What happens against the University of Southern California in the Holiday Bowl will obviously impact how the 2019 Iowa football team, and its season, will be remembered.
But much about this Iowa team already has been defined and discovered and here are 21 things in no particular order that stood out the most to me during the 12-game regular season in which Iowa compiled a 9-3 record, including 6-3 in the Big Ten.
Because this is Kirk Ferentz’s 21st as the Iowa head coach.
1. Nate Stanley’s emotion on Senior Day: I’m guessing that many Iowa fans were brought to tears as they watched video of senior quarterback Nate Stanley addressing the media following the 19-10 victory over Illinois on Senior Day.
The raw emotion was beautiful to watch as Stanley talked about what it means to be a Hawkeye, his voice cracking with emotion the whole time.
My only regret is that I wasn’t in the room to experience it first hand, but I’ve watched video of Stanley’s Senior Day interview multiple times because it never gets old.
Nate Stanley has been good for Iowa football, and vice versa.
He has been an outstanding teammate and an outstanding representative of the Iowa football program. He also has poured his heart and soul into being a Hawkeye and has conducted himself with class and dignity at all times.
Oh, yeah, Stanleu is also a three-year starter who has thrown 66 touchdown passes and has a chance to finish 3-0 as a starter in bowl games.
2. Devonte Young’s fumble recovery at Iowa State: This was one of the best feel-good stories of the regular season because it was a case of loyalty, patience and persistence being rewarded.
Young recovered a fumbled punt late in the fourth quarter to secure Iowa’s 18-17 victory over Iowa State on Sept. 14 in Ames.
Young came to Iowa from Maryland as a receiver, but switched to defensive back in hopes of getting more playing time.
But he stayed buried on the depth chart, and has had to accept playing on special teams.
Instead of pouting, making excuses or transferring, Young has stayed the course and embaced his role.
“The reason why I stayed is because there is no better place than Iowa,” Young said. “So it’s not like I wanted to transfer or anything. None of that stuff was even in my mind, honestly. I was just thinking I committed here, I’m on this team and this is what I want to do. I’m giving this my all for four years, so this is what I wanted to do.
“It’s just a family environment. We help each other through the ups and downs, the young guys, the old guys, coaches, we all communicate with each other and we all get it done.”
3. Kirk and Mary Ferentz represent Devonte Young on Senior Day: Speaking of Devonte Young, he also was part of another teary-eyed moment on Senior Day.
With his parents unable to make the trip from Maryland due to other family obligations, Young was asked who he would like to represent him during the Senior Day ceremony prior to kickoff and he said his head coach.
Kirk Ferentz was honored to represent Young, and was accompanied on the field by his wife, Mary, who wore Young’s jersey No. 17.
“They told me beforehand that they were going to come out with the jersey, so I already expected it,” Young said. “But it was pretty nice, though. I really loved it.”
All three of Ferentz’s sons played football under him at Iowa, so he is used to participating in the Senior Day ceremony.
“Not quite the same as when the other three boys were out there, but unfortunately, Devonte's folks couldn't get here, so I was thrilled that he asked, scraped the bottom of the barrel on that one,” Kirk Ferentz said in his true self-deprecating fashion. “I'm not going to tell you every one of these guys is like one of our sons, but we spend a lot of time together.
“And I think Devonte, it's fitting because of his story – every player that comes here hoping to start every game, have an NFL career. But the best bet is getting your degree and just bringing a good attitude and a good work ethic every day, and that's exactly what he's done.”
4. Tyler Goodson’s emergence at running back: It was too hard to pick just one play in which Goodson stood out, so I went with his overall impact instead.
I will admit that I didn’t envision Goodson becoming the starter this season as a true freshman with three proven junior running backs ahead of him on the depth chart.
But the Georgia native just kept making plays, and once he figured out all the other responsibilities for a running back such as pass blocking, it made no sense to keep him on the bench.
Goodson now leads Iowa with 634 rushing yards.
5. Keith Duncan’s game-winning field goal at Nebraska: Duncan set a Big Ten record by making 27 field goals during the regular season, but his last field goal of the regular season is the one fans will remember the most because it defeated Nebraska.
Duncan then turned to Nebraska head coach Scott Frost and blew him a kiss, which is uncharacteristic of an Iowa player under Kirk Ferentz, but sometimes, emotions are hard to contain. Frost twice had called timeouts to ice Duncan, so the emotions had been building.
6. Youth movement at receiver: Redshirt freshmen receivers Tyrone Tracy Jr. and Nico Ragaini were expected to contribute this season, but how many of you had them combining for 80 catches, 974 receiving yards and five touchdowns, because I sure didn't expect that much productivity.
But that is their combined statistics heading into the bowl game, including 44 catches by Ragaini and 589 receiving yards from Tracy Jr., whose ability to gain yards after the catch has been key to his success.
7. Learning that Alaric Jackson’s injury wasn’t serious: It was sad watching Jackson limp off the field with a knee injury in the first quarter of the season opener.
Iowa’s fourth-year junior left tackle appears to have a bright future in football, so it was horrible to see him get injured so soon.
But then I was told the next day by a reliable source that his injury wasn’t season ending, and fortunately, that proved to be the case as Jackson only missed three games and would go on to make third-team All-Big Ten after having made second-team last season.
8. Geno Stone’s open-field tackle at Michigan: Most of you probably will remember the eight sacks that Iowa allowed against Michigan, and that Iowa was held without a touchdown during the 10-3 loss at the Big House, and understandably so.
But my lasting memory of the game is when junior strong safety Geno Stone held Michigan running back Zach Charbonnet to a three-yard gain on 3rd-and-9 in the third quarter.
Charbonnet took a pitch from quarterback Shea Patterson and appeared to have all kinds of room to pick up the first down until Stone came charging in from his safety position like a heat-seeking missile and then made a spectacular open-field tackle.
My first thought upon seeing the play was how it reminded me of the great Bob Sanders in how violent and concise it was from an execution standpoint.
9. The game-winning drive against Nebraska: Kirk Ferentz defied his play-it-safe reputation with the game on the line against Nebraska by not choosing to play into overtime after Iowa had taken over on offense deep in its own territory and with less than one minute to play.
Ferentz instead chose to go for it and was rewarded as Iowa quickly drove into field-goal range despite a long pass catch to Nico Ragaini being overturned by replay.
10. Brady Ross’s response to being called a Kirk Ferentz-type player: Iowa’s senior fullback was talking about the emotions of Senior Day when I referred to him as a Kirk Ferentz-type player in how he always puts the team first.
This was Ross’s response:
“Being referred to as a coach Ferentz-type player is the biggest compliment anybody could ever give me because he’s a model guy,” Ross said. “He’s a guy that’s worth emulating.”
11. The mashed potatoes and gravy at Nebraska: Scott Frost has some fixing to do on the field, but whoever was responsible for preparing the mashed potatoes and gravy for the Nebraska press box meal deserves high praise for his or her performance.
I love mashed potatoes and gravy when served in the privacy and comfort of home with relatives, but cringe at the sight of them in public.
But I was hungry, even with it being the day after Thanksgiving, and the mashed potatoes and gravy actually looked pretty good, so I decided to give them a chance, and to my surprise, they tasted as good as they looked.
It still wasn’t like eating my mother’s mashed potatoes and gravy, but by press box standards, it was top-notch.
12. Seven waves: One of the greatest traditions in all of sports is now part of the Iowa game-day experience at Kinnick Stadium as the Wave is performed at the end of the first quarter of each of the seven home games.
All seven waves were special this season in their own way because the names and faces change with each visiting team, but the message of strength and love stays the same.
13. A.J. Epenesa’s performance at Nebraska: Iowa’s All-Big Ten defensive end saved his best for last as he unleashed his wrath on an overmatched Nebraska offensive line.
Epenesa finished with 14 tackles, including nine solos, 4 ½ tackles for loss and two sacks during the 27-24 victory. He was close to unstoppable and now the question is whether the Nebraska game will be Epenesa’s last regular-season game as a Hawkeye with the 2020 NFL Draft looming.
14. Tristan Wirfs explaining why he gave no thought to missing the bowl game: This just happened on Sunday as the Iowa players talked about their matchup with USC in the Holiday Bowl.
Wirfs was asked if he gave any thought to skipping the bowl game to protect himself, and to prepare for the 2020 NFL Draft, where he projects as a first-round pick despite only being a junior. His answer spoke volumes about his loyalty.
“I can understand why some people don’t do that, but I feel like I’d been letting my teammates down,” Wirfs said. “It feels like you’re kind of bailing on them.”
15. Jonathan Taylor’s greatness: I had to think outside the Hawkeye box once as a tribute to Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor for shredding a very good Iowa defense for 250 rushing yards.
Taylor’s combination of size, speed, quickness and vision makes him a joy to watch, but a nightmare for opposing defenses.
It isn’t easy running on Epenesa and his cohorts, but Taylor made it look easy.
16. Riding the elevator with Kaevon Merriweather at Kinnick Stadium: It was about an hour before kickoff to the Iowa-Rutgers game when I looked to my left in the elevator and saw Iowa defensive back Kaevon Merriweather standing next to me on crutches.
He told me that he had injured his foot in practice on Friday and would be out for one or two weeks after having started at free safety in the season opener.
However, the injury took longer to heal than what Merriweather had said and he lost his starting position to sophomore Jack Koerner, who would go on to have a solid season.
Merriweather has only appeared in two games, so he still could redshirt this season and be a third-year sophomore next season.
17. Kristian Welch refuses to pick a biggest rival: Kirk Ferentz would’ve been proud to have watched his senior linebacker refuse to identify one team as Iowa’s biggest rival.
Kristian Welch was being interviewed in the days leading up the Nebraska game and the media was trying to get him to say where the Cornhuskers stood as a rival, and for him to identify his biggest rival.
But Welch wasn’t having any of that narrative.
“No sir, I can’t,” Welch said when asked to pick his biggest rival. "I can't pick a team there, any of them."
He then explained why.
“Anytime you can go play and put the Tiger hawk on and put that helmet on and represent what Iowa football has been in the past and the present, and eventually the future, that’s going to be the main focus,” Welch said. “Whoever we’re playing, that’s just the opponent in a sense.
“If the opponent has to motivate you in order to play your best football, I think you’re in it for the wrong reasons. If you’re truly a competitor and you want to be a great teammate, you’re going to strap it on and you’re going to go 150 percent that you have every single game, every single play. Not only for yourself, but the teammates next to you.”
18. The return of Bab Sanders as honorary captain: Iowa’s legendary former defensive back was the honorary captain for the Purdue game, and just his presence alone, sent a powerful message.
Nobody changed the culture and the tempo under Kirk Ferentz more than Sanders did during his four seasons as a Hawkeye from 2000-03.
He truly was one of a kind.
19. Ihmir Smith-Marsette’s prediction: It took him until the last game of the regular season against Nebraska to do it, but the New Jersey native made good on his media day prediction that he would return at least one kick for a touchdown this season.
20. Brandon Smith’s touchdown catch against Penn State: This was a thing of beauty, the way in which Smith leaped over his defender and yanked the ball away from him as described by television broadcaster Sean McDonough.
The play covered 33 yards and cut the deficit to 17-12, but neither team would score again.
21. Santa Ferentz: One of the many feel-good storylines to emerge during the Nebraska post-game press conference is that Keith Duncan, Jack Koerner and offensive guard Kyler Schott would all be out on scholarship after coming to Iowa as walk-ons.
Kirk Ferentz told the media that he feels like Santa Claus whenever he rewards a walk-on with a scholarship.
It was a cool moment seeing how happy Ferentz was for his three players, and seeing how proud the three players were to have achieved their goal.