By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The Iowa’s football team’s 2023 regular season will be remembered for Tory Taylor’s punting, Jay Higgins’ tackling, Kaleb Brown’s late emergence, Sebastian Castro’s rise, Phil Parker’s sustained greatness, and, of course, the firing of offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz once the season ends.
Iowa (10-3) will finish the season against Tennessee (8-4) in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day in Orlando, Florida.
The Hawkeyes are coming off a 26-0 loss to Michigan in the Big Ten Championship game on Dec. 2 in Indianapolis, and though, the game was a mismatch, there still were a few moments/plays that stood out for Iowa, and one play in particular.
That play is part of the list that follows of my 10 most memorable/pivotal plays from the regular season and from the Big Ten Championship game.
Iowa ran 717 plays on offense during the regular season: 426 rushing, and 291 passing.
And while many of the plays produced very little yardage, there were some that had a huge impact on Iowa winning a game, including four that made this list.
The bowl game might have some plays that would deserve a spot on this list.
And if so, the list could always be updated.
But here are my top 10 as of right now:
10. Kaleb Brown’s 23-yard catch against Northwestern: In addition to helping set up Drew Stevens’ game-winning field goal, this play also helped to launch Brown from being buried on the bench.
The Ohio State transfer barely played in seven of the first eight games, and he missed the Purdue game for what was described as personal reasons.
Brown’s season was on the verge of being a bust, but then starting receiver Diante Vines was injured, giving Brown a chance to seize the opportunity as he would go on to do.
Brown, who is from Chicago, had 14 catches for 142 yards and one touchdown over the final four regular-season games. He had a career-high seven catches for 71 yards against Illinois.
Hi 23-yard grab against Northwestern also showed that quarterback Deason Hill could throw with some touch as he had to throw into a tight window near the sideline.
As for Vines, he has since entered the transfer portal.
9. Leshon Williams’ fourth-quarter 22-yard run against Nebraska: On a day when Iowa kicker Drew Stevens was struggling enough that Kirk Ferentz benched him, this run on Iowa’s final drive of the game made victory possible as it moved the Hawkeyes into field-goal range.
And more importantly, it moved Iowa into Marshall Meeder’s field-goal range.
With the scored tied at 10 in the closing seconds, Kirk Ferentz had a gut feeling that it was time to give Meeder a chance, and since it was only a 38-yard field goal attempt, Ferentz felt that it was in Meeder’s limited range.
Ferentz might have stuck with Stevens if the field goal had been from a longer distance since Stevens has a stronger leg than Meeder.
But thanks to Williams’ 22-yard run, Kirk Ferentz didn’t have to make that decision, while Meeder would go on to make the field goal as you will read about later.
8. Leshon Williams’ 82-yard touchdown run against Wisconsin: Neither team had scored when Williams broke loose for this touchdown with 11 minutes, 49 seconds left in the second quarter.
The 82-yarder was the longest touchdown run for Iowa since Tavian Banks also scored on an 82-yard run against Iowa State in 1997.
It was also the only touchdown scored in the game as Iowa would go on to win 15-6 at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison.
7. Koen Entringer’s touchdown-saving tackle against Michigan: This play, which occurred on an 87-yard punt return by Michigan, had no impact on the game as Michigan would go on to score one of its two touchdowns shortly thereafter.
It still made the list because of the effort and determination that Entringer showed under tough circumstances.
The redshirt freshman defensive back from Ypsilanti, Michigan had the daunting task of replacing Cooper DeJean as the gunner on Iowa’s punt team.
Entringer was in position to tackle Michigan punt returner Semaj Morgan, but Morgan side-stepped him, causing Entringer to fall, and then Morgan eluded several more Iowa players and was off and running to what appeared to be a touchdown.
Entringer, meanwhile, got up immediately and started blowing past players from both teams in pursuit of Morgan, who was racing down the Iowa sideline.
Morgan was inside the 10-yard line when Entringer dove and pushed him out of bounds.
Entringer stayed on the ground briefly probably because he was exhausted.
His incredible effort, and his refusal to give up on the play, was an inspiration, even for those sitting in the press box eating popcorn and cookies.
6. Kaleb Johnson’s 30-yard touchdown run against Illinois: Iowa was trailing 13-9 when Johnson blasted through a huge hole near the middle of the line of scrimmage. He then cut to his right and outraced the Illinois safety to the corner of the end zone for what would prove to be the game-winning touchdown.
Illinois blocked Drew Stevens’ point-after kick, leaving the score at 15-13.
But the Iowa defense would keep Illinois from scoring the rest of the way.
5. Tory Taylor’s 62-yard punt against Wisconsin: It was tough choosing between this punt and the one in which Taylor pinned the Badgers at the their own 4 with a punt that landed on the Badger 1 with perfect back spin.
I chose the 62-yarder because Taylor punted deep from his own end zone and then totally flipped field position in a game in which the Badger offense could do very little.
Taylor punted 10 times in this game for 506 yards and 50.6 average. Five of his punted traveled at least 50 yards and five were downed inside the 20.
Taylor would go on to win the Ray Guy Award as the nation’s best collegiate punter because of performances like this.
4. Sebastian Castro’s pick-six against Iowa State: Iowa was leading the Cyclones 10-0 when Castro had a 30-yard interception return with 4:29 left in the second quarter.
It was Castro’s first career interception, and with the point-after kick that followed, it gave Iowa a 17-0 lead.
That would prove to be enough points as Iowa prevailed 20-13 in Ames.
The Iowa offense only had 235 yards and just nine first downs, so the defense scoring a touchdown was key to Iowa winning.
Castro would go on to earn All-America and All-Big Ten honors this season.
3. Drew Stevens’ 53-yard field goal against Northwestern: This game-winning field goal came with 14 seconds left to play at Wrigley Field in Chicago.
It gave Iowa a 10-7 victory on a day in which the Iowa offense only had 169 yards.
The win also came after a bye week, and two weeks after Iowa had suffered a controversial 12-10 loss to Minnesota at Kinnick Stadium.
Not only did the distance of this field goal make it special, but it also kept Iowa from having to play in overtime in a game in which the offense was horrendous.
2. Marshall Meeder’s 38-yard field goal against Nebraska: The senior transfer from Central Michigan hadn’t attempted a field goal all season when Kirk Ferentz turned to him with the game on the line.
Meeder had performed well in practice throughout the season as Kirk Ferentz would explain later, while Drew Stevens already had two field goals blocked in the game.
Kirk Ferentz trusted his instincts in this case and he was right to do so as Meeder made the kick, giving Iowa a 13-10 victory in Lincoln, and 10 wins in the regular season.
- Cooper DeJean’s 54-yard punt return for a touchdown against Minnesota that was erased: While this play ultimately led to anger and disappointment for Hawkeye fans , it tops my list for several reasons, not the least of which was DeJean’s incredible individual effort on the play.
DeJean caught the punt near the Minnesota sideline and with multiple Gopher players within about three feet of him.
He made a spectacular spin move right in front of Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck to escape from the pack of Gopher players, and then he cut across the field and eluded a couple more Minnesota players before finally crossing the end zone with less than 2 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
DeJean’s apparent touchdown led to a massive celebration as fans hardly could believe what they had just witnessed.
A game that Iowa was on the verge of losing had suddenly shifted dramatically.
Or so fans thought.
The officials would go on to erase the touchdown, saying that DeJean had made an invalid fair catch signal.
Jubilation turned to shock and anger as Minnesota would hang on for a 12-10 victory.
There was so much to question about the overturn, including why the officials didn’t blow their whistles to stop the play.
Instead, they let the play unfold as neither team let up on the field.
What would have been one of the greatest plays in Hawkeye history is now one of the most controversial plays in program history.
Whether you feel that DeJean made an invalid fair catch signal or not, it wasn’t called until after the play was allowed to happen on the field.
It was a case in which greatness wasn’t allowed to happen.