By Pat Harty
The 2023 Iowa football team has earned a special place in Hawkeye football history, but now comes the hard part, if the regular season wasn’t hard enough for this injury-riddled and offensively challenged team.
With Friday’s 13-10 victory over Nebraska, this Iowa team, despite having multiple injuries to key players, especially on offense, is the fifth Iowa team under Kirk Ferentz to win at least 10 games in the regular season and will now represent the Big Ten West Division in the Big Ten Championship game on Dec. 2 in Indianapolis against either Michigan or Ohio State.
The 10th win came in dramatic and stunning fashion as backup kicker Marshall Meeder, a senior transfer from Central Michigan, made a 38-yard field goal as time expired.
It was easy to assume that starting kicker Drew Stevens was injured and that’s why Kirk Ferentz turned to Meeder, who now has joined a growing list of Iowa kickers, along with Miguel Recinos and Keith Duncan, that have defeated Nebraska with last-second field goals.
But that wasn’t the case based on what Kirk Ferentz said on the CBS post-game interview, and then later in his post-game press conference.
“He’s done a really good job in practice. He’s been very consistent,” Kirk Ferentz said of Meeder. “And I just felt he had the best chance today.”
Kirk Ferentz trusted his instincts and it paid huge dividends as Iowa is now 18-1 in its last 19 games in November.
He chose a guy who hadn’t attempted a field goal this season, and who joined the team just two days before the start of the fall semester, over one of the top kickers in the Big Ten in Stevens, who as a sophomore entered Friday’s game having made 33-of-41 career-field goal attempts, including all six attempts from 30-to-39 yards.
The switch came after Stevens had two field-goal attempts blocked in Friday’s game, and on the second block, he was hit hard near the line of scrimmage after having picked up the football. Stevens also had two kickoffs that rolled out of bounds.
But Kirk Ferentz made no mention of injury when asked why he switched kickers with the game on the line.
It was both a strange and fascinating development.
The final score, and the way the game ended, would suggest that it was a typical performance for Iowa with the defense and special teams leading the way.
But it didn’t work out that way as Iowa’s special teams had a rare subpar performance by its standards, allowing the two previously mentioned blocked field-goal attempts and the two kickoffs that rolled out of bounds.
The Iowa defense, other than allowing one big play play, was rock-solid again, holding Nebraska to 75 rushing yards and 264 total yards.
Iowa ran the ball effectively, finishing with 163 yards, including a critical 22-yard gain by Leshon Williams to the Nebraska 15 that helped to setup Meeder’s game-winning field.
But the passing attack, as so often has been the case, left much to be desired as Deacon Hill only completed 11-of-28 passes for 94 yards.
He also threw an interception in the closing seconds of the game, but then Nebraska gave the ball right back as Iowa defensive end Ethan Hurkett intercepted a pass thrown by Nebraska quarterback Chubba Purdy, giving Iowa first-down at the Nebraska 37.
And then just when you thought Drew Stevens would step on to the field to attempt another game winner for Iowa, Kirk Ferentz made a stunning move that is so out of character for him.
“Drew just had a tough day today,” Kirk Ferentz said in his post-game press conference. “He had a tough day. He’s been a real good performer for us and just so consistent.
“But the fact that two kickoffs go out of bounds, that’s not characteristic. So, I just felt maybe it was best to let him sit a little bit. And then the other component is Marshall, since he’s shown up, is a delightful young man, just a really good young guy. He’s had a great attitude since he joined us and then he’s performed really consistently.
“Both those guys have ever since we got going in August.”
Kirk Ferentz has been criticized over the years for sticking too long with players that might have a tendency to struggle, or that aren’t perceived as being better than the backup.
Stevens, however, had mostly been reliable up until Friday’s game, and yet, Kirk Ferentz still made the switch.
Whether you agree with the decision to switch kickers or not, it doesn’t matter because it worked.
Meeder rose to the occasion, and now Iowa will have the opportunity to represent the Big Ten West Division in the championship game for the second time in three years.
Iowa (10-2, 7-2) will face the winner of Saturday’s showdown between undefeated Michigan and undefeated Ohio State on Dec. 2 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
“I don’t watch much TV, but I’m actually going to watch that one,” Kirk Ferentz said. “Normally I wouldn’t.”
Iowa already had clinched the West Division heading into Friday’s game, but just imagine the criticism and the jokes that would’ve surrounded this Iowa team heading into the Big Ten title game if it had lost to a 5-6 Nebraska squad.
The Hawkeyes will almost certainly be a massive underdog against either Michigan or Ohio State, and it’s easy to see why with Iowa’s struggling offense.
Iowa also lost at Penn State 31-0 in the Big Ten opener on Sept. 23, while Michigan and Ohio both defeated Penn State.
Iowa suffered yet another loss to a key offensive player on Friday as sophomore receiver Kaleb Brown left the game in the third quarter with an injury.
The Chicago native was leading Iowa with three catches when he left the game.
Brown has emerged late in the season, going from hardly playing in the first half of the season to becoming the go-to wide receiver down the stretch.
However, he did have a critical drop that cost Iowa a touchdown in the third quarter.
The ball was thrown hard as usual by Deacon Hill, but it was on target and should have been caught in the front corner of the end zone.
Iowa only led 10-7 at halftime despite having a 126-18 advantage in rushing yards and despite dominating the time of possession by more than 14 minutes.
It was, oddly enough, on special teams where Iowa struggled in the first half as Nebraska blocked two field-goal attempts, and Iowa also had kickoff roll out of bounds.
The Iowa defense also allowed a rare explosive play as Nebraska scored on a 66-yard pass play in the second quarter.
It was the longest play that the Iowa defense has allowed this season.
The two teams combined for zero points, 91 yards and two fumbles in the first quarter.
Nebraska also blocked an Iowa field-goal attempt in the first quarter.
It was the sixth straight Iowa game in which neither team scored a touchdown in the first quarter. It was also the ninth-straight in which Iowa’s opponent didn’t score in the first quarter.
As for Meeder, he made 30 field goal during his Central Michigan career, so he’s used to seeing the ball split the uprights.
But when asked if he expected to kick min Friday’s game, Meeder said:
“Not in a million years.”
Meeder trusted his experience and his training to make the kick.
“I really try not to think about anything,” he said. “It’s the same kick I’ve always made, but just a little bit more pressure. I try not to let that get to me. I’ve done it a million times. There’s no reason to mess something up now.”
Kirk Ferentz became emotional as he was interviewed on the field immediately after the game.
This has been trying season for Kirk Ferentz as he’s had to deal with his son, Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, being fired, which will happen once the season ends.
The announcement that Brian Ferentz would be relieved of his duties after he season was made by Iowa Interim Athletic Director Beth Goetz with games left in the regular season.
Iowa is 4-0 since the announcement was made.
“I’m just really excited for our guys,” Kirk Ferentz said. “They’ve been really resilient.”
How it happened in the closing seconds just added to the drama with a pass being intercepted by a defensive lineman, and with the backup kicker becoming he latest Hawkeye kicker to beat the Cornhuskers.
“It’s crazy, a defensive lineman gets a pick and then an unsung guy comes out and kicks a field goal,” Kirk Ferentz said. “It’s kind of representative of this team.
“Somehow, some way, we’ve won ten games. So, that’s pretty good.”
Nebraska, on the other hand, finished the season with four straight losses, and with a 5-7 record, after having being 5-3 through eight games under first-year head coach Matt Rhule.
The loss kept Nebraska from being bowl eligible for a seventh consecutive season, and that even more reason for Iowa to celebrate.
Iowa 0 10 0 3 – 13
Nebraska 0 7 30 – 10
I – Deacon Hill 1 run (Drew Stevens kick)
I – Drew Stevens 28 FG
N – Jaylen Lloyd 66 pass from Chubba Purdue (Tristan Alvano kick)
N – Alvano 44 FG
I -Marshall Meeder 38 FG