By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Halloween 2020 was a depressing day for members of the Iowa football team, and for those loyal to Hawkeye football.
Iowa lost to Northwestern 21-20, despite having led 17-0 in the first quarter, and fell to 0-2.
The game was played at Kinnick Stadium, but the atmosphere was far from typical, with only a handful of fans in the stands due to the global pandemic.
Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras also had inexplicably attempted 50 passes in what was just his second career start.
So you had a gut-wrenching loss, a near-empty stadium and an offensive strategy that made absolutely no sense, and you had to wonder.
Was Iowa football heading in the wrong direction under Kirk Ferentz?
The program already was dealing with racial unrest in the wake of multiple former Iowa black players having accused the program of racial disparities just a few months earlier in the summer of 2020.
The accusations were made public barely one week after an African-American man named George Floyd had been killed by a white Minneapolis police officer.
Emotions were swirling and the hope was that Iowa’s performance on the field would show that the program still was unified and productive despite the racial issues. But hope quickly turned to concern after the Northwestern loss, which came a week after Iowa had lost at Purdue 24-20 in the 2020 season opener.
Ferentz didn’t have any magic words of inspiration after the Northwestern, nor did he make any bold predictions about his team bouncing back in grand fashion.
He praised Northwestern, talked about the importance of playing a full 60 minutes and admitted when asked by the media that he was concerned that Petras might start to press and try to do too much after back-to-back losses.
Iowa also had multiple players kneel during the National Anthem before the Northwestern game, and that created another emotional storyline, and caused resentment with some fans.
The decision to kneel came after what Ferentz described as “three very direct conversations” that the players had about this topic.
“The conversation was great, and what we decided was we’re going to respect each other’s opinions on the topic, and to me that means doing things as a team,” Ferentz said after the Northwestern loss. “The dialogue was outstanding, and the key point was everybody said what they felt, but everybody also agreed that we’re going to have respect for each other’s opinions.
“And that’s really quite something that our country is badly in need of right now, just a little more listening and a little bit more civil conversation.”
It might just be a coincidence, but Iowa is 7-0 since the Northwestern collapse from last season, and its most recent win – a 34-6 shellacking of No. 17 Indiana in the 2021 season opener this past Saturday at Kinnick Stadium – was by far the most impressive of all the wins.
It’s a different Iowa team, and a new season, but the momentum that was built from last season, and how the players came together and responded to adversity, on and off the field, is helping to fuel the fire.
Iowa very easily could’ve unraveled after starting 0-2 last season, and with all of the events unfolding off the field with the global pandemic, and with the racial unrest.
But that didn’t happen.
The players stayed the course, the coaches kept coaching and now the stage could be set for a special season, although, you’d never get Ferentz to say that.
Ferentz knows that if Iowa loses to Iowa State next Saturday in Ames that the narrative would change quickly because that’s the world we live in where overreacting is so common, especially in sports.
Iowa State struggled to defeat Northern Iowa 16-10 in its season opener on Saturday in Ames, and it’s easy to assume that the seventh-ranked Cyclones were looking ahead to Iowa.
But that’s also an excuse, and not fair to Northern Iowa.
Whatever the case, Iowa and Iowa State are both 1-0 and both are ranked with Iowa almost certain to climb from its current spot at No. 18 in the Associated Press poll.
But Iowa is also coming off one of is best performances under Ferentz, and that covers a lot of territory with the 66-year old Ferentz in his 23rd season as head coach.
Iowa’s defense was outstanding against Indiana, the offense was opportunistic and special teams were solid.
“In a nutshell, two things that stand out in my mind; a combination of the older guys doing what we needed them to do,” Ferentz said. “They really played good football and led our football team.
“The other aspect, pleased with the young guys.”
Ferentz then went on to say in so many words that Indiana’s explosiveness on offense, particularly All-Big Ten receiver Ty Fryfogle, to whom Ferentz referred to as No. 3, coupled with Iowa’s youth up front on both offense and defense, had kept him up at night a little bit.
Indiana is considered a program on the rise under head coach Tom Allen, and has a 6-2 record from last season as proof.
But Saturday’s game was a mismatch from the beginning as Iowa led 14-0 barely two minutes into the game, and 31-3 at halftime.
Even the biggest of Hawkeye homers had to be surprised by how lopsided Saturday’s game proved to be.
Indiana has had its share of mediocre to bad football teams over the years, but this isn’t supposed to be one of them.
And yet, Iowa made the Hoosiers look mediocre on Saturday, especially the Iowa defense, which was sparked by senior cornerback Riley Moss’ two pick sixes in the first half.
“Just extremely disappointing, hats off to (Iowa),” Indiana coach Tom Allen said. “Great team, great coaching staff at Iowa. Coach Ferentz does an awesome job. Just got behind early and momentum just got away from us.
“Just mistake after mistake and you can’t do that. We’ve talked about that so many times with this team. They don’t make very many and we knew we couldn’t make very many, and then we did and they didn’t.”
Iowa made a few mistakes, including losing two fumbles and having several dropped passes. But the score was so lopsided early in the game that it didn’t matter, while Indiana’s miscues had a huge impact.
The Hoosiers also were penalized seven times, while Iowa only had two penalties.
The criticism against Iowa from last season is that its six wins came against teams with a combined record of 18-28. Wisconsin was the only team that Iowa defeated last season to finish with a winning record at 4-3.
But in fairness to Iowa then and now, you can only play the teams on your schedule, and Indiana entered this past Saturday’s game ranked one spot ahead of Iowa.
Most prognosticators have Wisconsin and Iowa as the top two teams in the Big Ten West Division, in that order, but Iowa clearly looked better this past Saturday as the Badgers lost 16-10 at home to Penn State.
Ferentz, of course, was happy and proud after Saturday’s win, but his demeanor after wins and losses rarely changes. It’s all about staying the course, staying level-headed and dealing with the next challenge, which for Iowa, is a game against arguably the best Iowa State team ever on paper.
Ferentz and the Iowa players have been through a lot over the past 16 months, on and off the field, and there still is plenty of work to do in both areas to get better.
A culture doesn’t change in just one year, but a team can splinter in a short time, causing a program to unravel.
Iowa was in a tough spot after the Northwestern loss, and it was easy to assume that it was the beginning of the end for Kirk Ferentz.
However, as it turns out, the Northwestern loss was a crossroads for the Iowa program, a day of reckoning and soul searching.
Instead of caving to the pressure, the players and coaches have responded in impressive fashion.
It’s easy to forget, or overlook, with all that’s happened off the field, that Iowa has a 54-21 record since the start of the 2015 season, and has played 23 straight games without allowing 25 points.
That says a lot about defensive coordinator Phil Parker, but also a lot about Ferentz because the buck stops with him.
Ferentz lost his right-hand man when long-time strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle was relieved of his duties last June as part of the fallout from the racial accusations. Doyle was probably the second most powerful and most recognizable person in the program, so his loss was significant.
It was a blow to Kirk Ferentz, and to his image and legacy. But Ferentz has persevered and risen above the adversity, and now has a team that has caught our imagination after just one game.
That also says a lot about his legacy.