By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Saturday’s season opener between Iowa and Indiana has the potential to be a classic.
Both teams are ranked in the Associated Press preseason poll, with Indiana 17th and Iowa 18th, and Kinnick Stadium will be rocking as fans make their much-anticipated return after a year away from the action due to the Covid-19 global pandemic.
This will be Kirk Ferentz’s 23rd season opener as the Iowa head coach and his record is 18-4 in season openers.
Most of the season openers have slipped from my memory, because frankly, most of them were easy to forget.
But for me, three of Iowa’s season openers under Ferentz standout, two for what happened on the field, and one for what happened when I walked into a press box.
Here is a closer look at the three games:
Sept. 5, 2009, Kinnick Stadium, Iowa 17, Northern Iowa 16
This has to rank on top because of the extraordinary circumstances at the end when Iowa blocked field goals on back-to-back plays to avoid what would’ve been an embarrassing and costly loss to an FCS opponent.
Iowa had performed sluggishly on offense throughout the game and was about to pay a heavy price when Northern Iowa lined up for a 39-yard field goal on first down, and with 39 seconds remaining.
The Hawkeyes blocked the field goal, however, and Iowa linebacker Jeremiah Hunter went to scoop up the ball, but his teammates yelled at him to stay away and then tackled the UNI player who eventually picked it up. The Hawkeyes celebrated, thinking they just needed to take a knee to secure the win.
The celebration was premature, however, as the officials ruled that since it was first down and the ball never crossed the line of scrimmage, the Panthers would be able to re-kick.
The Iowa players had to collect themselves mentally and emotionally and try for another block, or hope that the UNI kicker would miss.
Hunter, still upset about what had happened on the first field goal attempt, was determined to make up for it, and he certainly rose to occasion by blocking the second field-goal attempt to secure the win.
“I was praying the whole time, like ‘This is why I’m out here,” Hunter said after the game. “I was just focused on getting that block the second time.”
Iowa might have won the game, but the performance did little to galvanize the fans.
There were concerns that Iowa would struggle against better competition, and rightfully so.
No disrespect to Northern Iowa, but it competes at a lower level, and to have played Iowa so close was cause for concern.
Or so we thought.
Remarkably, Iowa would go on to win its first nine games that season and showed signs of being a Big Ten champion until quarterback Ricky Stanzi was injured in the 10th game against Northwestern at Kinnick Stadium.
Iowa lost to Northwestern (17-10) and at Ohio State (27-24) in back-to-back games before bouncing back to defeat Minnesota 12-0 in the regular-season finale with backup James Vandenberg playing quarterback in all three games.
Stanzi returned for the Orange Bowl and led Iowa to a 24-14 victory over Georgia Tech to cap an 11-2 season.
A spot in the Orange Bowl would’ve been beyond Iowa’s reach if had lost to Northern Iowa in the season opener.
The 2009 season opener now serves as a valuable lesson, or as a reminder, that you can’t judge a team by how it performs in a season opener.
Iowa has a history of getting better as the season progresses under Kirk Ferentz and that was certainly the case with the 2009 team.
August 26, 2000, Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas State 27, Iowa 7
Maybe the happiest I’ve ever been covering the Iowa football team was entering the press box at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City in 2000 and realizing that it was air conditioned.
A chill raced through my sweat-soaked body and then I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and gave thanks for my good fortune.
This was before Kinnick Stadium, and before most college press boxes had air conditioning, so it truly was a pleasure to escape from what I still believe to be the hottest day in my life.
A young and developing Iowa team lost to a veteran Kansas State squad 27-7 in a game that left much to be desired with exception to the debut of Bob Sanders on special teams.
Little did we know at the time that we were witnessing the start to one of the greatest careers in the history of the Iowa football program as Sanders would go on to become a three-time first-team All-Big Ten defensive back, and is now a Hawkeye legend.
Sanders was a disruptive force that day on special teams.
I remember thinking he was sort of like a defensive version of Tim Dwight in how he played with so much passion and aggressiveness despite being undersized.
And it was easier to think because I was sitting in an air conditioned press box rather than sweating through my shorts on what, again, had to be the hottest day in my life.
Kansas City is certainly known for being hot in late August, but this amount of heat was ridiculous.
It turned hardened tailgaters into whiny, whimpering babies who chose to drink water over beer if you can believe that.
Iowa City native Tom Suter was doing a live pre-game radio show for 1630-KCJJ in the parking lot of Arrowhead Stadium, and to say that he struggled with the heat would be an understatement.
“The only thing that kept me going was interviewing a guy that was roasting an Emu,” Suter said. “I enjoy having beer when I’m tailgating and after a beer and a half, I was done.
“It was literally too hot to drink beer. The stadium was an uncomfortable sauna. I can only imagine what it was like on the field. I will never forget that day and I’m trying to forget the game.”
Sept. 1, 2012, Soldier Field, Iowa 18, Northern Illinois 17
This game makes my top three not only for how it ended with Iowa scoring nine unanswered points in the fourth quarter to escape with the win in Chicago.
But also because Damon Bullock scored the game-winning touchdown on a 23-yard run late in the fourth quarter.
Trailing by five points with 3 minutes, 41 seconds remaining, Iowa marched down the field and scored its only touchdown when it mattered the most.
Iowa had been limited to four Mike Meyer field goals before Bullock finally broke loose and reached the corner of the end zone.
Bullock finished with a career-high 150 yards on 30 carries.
Sadly, Bullock was killed in 2019 at the age of 25 when he was struck by a car near his family’s home in Duncanville, Texas.
Bullock had reportedly hit a light pole on a median, causing the street lights at the intersection to disconnect.
Bullock then reportedly parked his car and started to walk for help when he was struck by a vehicle.
His death sent shockwaves through the Iowa program as Bullock’s former teammates tried to cope with his sudden loss.
It was a painful reminder that life is precious and unpredictable.
Damon Bullock was just getting started with his life after football, and it was all taken away in a matter of seconds.