IOWA CITY, Ia. –Big Ten Network television cameras caught a poignant moment after Iowa’s 41-21 victory at Penn State Saturday.
Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz, who had just won his 100th Big Ten game, came up to defensive coordinator Phil Parker. They shared a handshake, smiles and a few words about a job well done.
Parker has been with Ferentz every step of the way on this 22-season journey. Phil’s had his fingers in all 100 victories, too.
Reaching that century mark milestone in Pennsylvania, against a team he grew up watching, will forever be special to Ferentz. So will his bond with Parker.
This 2020 Iowa team could go down as a special one, too, in a year that’s been as trying as Ferentz’s inaugural 1-10 season in 1999.
The ongoing pandemic cost his team valuable developmental opportunities when spring practice was shut down. It was especially detrimental to his newly-minted starting quarterback, Spencer Petras, as well as the defensive line and linebacker positions.
There was the upheaval over racial injustice in the program this summer, a national story that didn’t paint a positive image. The good news is that, by all indications, much-needed steps have been made to improve that. Like a football team, it remains a work in progress.
There’s also an active lawsuit, filed by some former players, that hangs out there like a cloud on a sunny day.
But there’s also this football team, one that has come roaring back from an 0-2 start. A team that could have gone south in a hurry, especially after squandering a 17-0 lead after a quarter and losing at home to Northwestern, 21-20, in the season’s second game.
Instead, Iowa heads into a Black Friday matchup with Nebraska riding a three-game winning streak after outscoring Michigan State, Minnesota and Penn State by a collective 125-35. Iowa hasn’t mowed down three straight opponents like that since the final three games of the 2002 Big Ten Championship season, when it handled Wisconsin, Northwestern and Minnesota by a 127-34 margin.
“We are what we are,” Ferentz said. “We were 0-2. That’s what we earned. All we can deal with is what’s in front of us now.”
Iowa snapped a streak of six straight losses to Penn State, a week after beating Minnesota for an unprecedented sixth straight time in a dominating road performance. Iowa will also be looking for a sixth straight victory over Nebraska Friday at noon in Kinnick Stadium.
Petras, the defensive line and the linebackers all showed marked improvement at Penn State.
The defensive line was especially impressive. Zach VanValkenburg recovered two fumbles and had 1.5 tackles for a loss. Chauncey Golston had a sack, two tackles for a loss and an interception. And Daviyon Nixon’s day included a sack and a 71-yard interception return for a touchdown.
The growth of that defensive line has been one of the brightest spots in Ferentz’s eyes.
“We were less than impressive, in my opinion, three weeks ago, four weeks ago,” he said. “You see them growing and improving each week.”
Nick Niemann led the linebackers with a career-high 17 tackles including a tackle for a loss. Jack Campbell had a sack, shared a tackle for a loss and forced a fumble.
The running game has also found its stride during this winning streak. After being limited to 77 yards in just 23 carries against Northwestern, a game that saw Iowa throw 51 times, the Hawkeyes have had a 100-yard rusher in three straight games – Tyler Goodson against Michigan State (113) and Minnesota (142) and Mekhi Sargent (101) against Penn State.
Iowa has averaged 182 yards on the ground in those three games, and that bodes well against a Nebraska team that is 1-4 after being humbled by Illinois at home Saturday, 41-23.
The Illini entered the game 95th nationally in yards per game, but totaled 490 against the porous Nebraska defense. Illinois had 285 yards on the ground in 52 attempts, with both Mike Epstein (113) and Chase Brown (110) cracking the century mark against a defense that started seven seniors and two juniors
Nebraska Coach Scott Frost, in the third season, was asked if the loss showed he wasn’t making progress in his rebuilding efforts.
“That’s certainly a fair judgment to make,” Frost said. “It simply was bad today. It starts with me and goes to the whole team.”
Thomas Fidone, a prep all-American tight end from Lewis Central of Council Bluffs who is a Nebraska commitment, tweeted, “I’m not sure what to think” after the game.
The Illinois Athletics Twitter site weighed in, too:
“Good game, Nebraska. Thanks for bringing back BIG football.”
The Cornhuskers are surrendering 449.8 yards of total offense per game. That includes 223.3 rushing yards per game, 13th in the Big Ten. Iowa ranks sixth in the Big Ten in rushing offense at 181.8 yards per game.
Nebraska is No. 4 in rushing at 198.8 yards a game. But they’ll be going against an improved Iowa defense that is fourth in rushing defense at 102.6 yards per game.
Frost made a change at quarterback two weeks ago, benching Adrian Martinez and going with Luke McCaffrey against Penn State. The Cornhuskers won that game, 30-23.
But McCaffrey struggled against Illinois, completing 15 of 26 passes for 134 yards and getting intercepted three times. Iowa has intercepted 18 passes over the last 12 games.
Two years ago in Kinnick Stadium, Martinez rallied Nebraska with two fourth-quarter touchdowns and a two-point conversion to tie the game, 28-28, with 3:32 to play. But after Ihmir Smith-Marsette’s 27-yard kickoff return, quarterback Nate Stanley engineered Iowa on a 41-yard drive in nine plays. Sargent gained 31 yards in six carries on the drive. And Stanley hit tight end T.J. Hockenson for a crucial 10-yard gain on a fourth-and-8 play to keep the drive alive and put the ball on the Nebraska 27. After a 4-yard gain by Sargent, Michel Recinos kicked 41-yard walkoff field goal.
Last season, Stanley completed clutch passes of 22 yards to Smith-Marsette and Sam LaPorta on the final drive to set up Keith Duncan’s 48-yard walkoff field goal in a 27-24 victory.
On Friday, Iowa will try to give Floyd of Rosedale company in the football complex for a sixth straight year by keeping the Heroes Game trophy.