‘Story of our season:’ How Iowa persevered through injuries, adversity to win the West

IOWA CITY, Iowa — The moment of realization first hit the sidelines, then echoed throughout Kinnick Stadium with 35 seconds left.

Iowa’s players huddled around Brian Ferentz as a delay of game penalty was issued by the officiating crew. Players scuffed up the departing offensive coordinator’s hair, then coach Kirk Ferentz stepped in. The father and son shared a handshake, then a prolonged hug.

After quarterback Deacon Hill knelt following the final snap to close out a 15-13 win against Illinois, left tackle Mason Richman doused Brian Ferentz with a jug of Powerade and guard Rusty Feth launched it 15 yards away. In the tunnel to the locker room, the much-maligned assistant embraced several players, including quarterback Cade McNamara and tight end Erick All, who are out for the season with injuries. In the locker room, the Big Ten West Division trophy sat for all to see.

It was the final game at Kinnick for Brian Ferentz, a former team captain in 2005, assistant since 2012 and offensive coordinator for the last seven years. He was ousted by President Barbara Wilson and interim athletics director Beth Goetz on Oct. 30, effective at season’s end. It was an emotional day for the offensive coordinator from the moment he arrived at the “Hawk Walk” two hours before kickoff to the locker room celebration that lasted well past the Victory Polka.

“I was proud of him,” Kirk Ferentz said. “He’s been admirable in the way he’s handled a very tough situation. And I’m not quite sure I know how he’s done it, but I’m really proud of him as a dad. And can’t say enough about that. But I do try to keep things separate. I’m really proud of him as a head coach.”

In a season that culminated with the final Big Ten West championship, the No. 16 Hawkeyes (9-2, 6-2 Big Ten) have persevered despite a level of adversity that would crush most programs. Ranging from multiple suspensions following a gambling probe to a relentless number of injuries to Brian Ferentz’s firing — and an offense that ranks last nationally — the Hawkeyes never wavered on their commitment to one another.

“When you’re hit with so many obstacles like that, it’s hard not to feel bad for yourself,” linebacker Jay Higgins said. “But I feel like our No. 1 focus at the end of the day is figuring out a way to win games. You can really rally a team that wants to win. I feel like we have a lot of guys who only care about winning the game. They don’t care who’s out there.”



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Faith and perseverance

The best way to describe Iowa’s season metaphorically is through Biblical and historical figures. First comes Job, God’s faithful but scorned servant. The Hawkeyes were tortured by the football gods throughout this calendar year from suspensions to season-ending injuries.

Every day provided a test, yet the players kept their faith and trusted in one another.

“Plenty of struggles,” said Logan Lee, starting defensive tackle and devout Christian. “Plenty of ups and downs. The biggest thing is just keep fighting, keep trusting in the plan that God has for us.”

Then there’s Rasputin, the heretical faith healer and advisor to final Russian Empress Alexandra. Rasputin survived a stabbing, multiple poisonings and gunshots — all in the same night — before he was thrown off a bridge and finally drowned. No matter how many times the Hawkeyes are beaten and left for dead, they come back for more.

“We have battled so much adversity and I am just so proud of every single person in that locker room — players, coaches, every single person — that’s why it just means more,” said sixth-year defensive end Joe Evans. “I have played on some really great teams. This group battled adversity. We just keep fighting. We just keep coming and coming. I can’t say it enough. I am so proud of these guys.”

The proof of their collective resilience is in the numbers. This year, Iowa is 9-2 overall and 4-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less. The only loss came after a last-minute touchdown was reversed in controversial fashion on replay against Minnesota. The Hawkeyes have won 14 of their last 17 games and are 17-1 in November since 2019.

The Hawkeyes’ offense also ranks last nationally in yards per game (245.4) and averages just 18.5 points. The scoring metric is why Brian Ferentz was dismissed. In February, former athletics director Gary Barta, who officially supervised him because of university nepotism rules, altered the assistant’s contract by halting his two-year rollover and installing performance objectives that included an average of 25 points per game and seven victories.

“This being his last game in Kinnick, I couldn’t be happier for the guy,” Hill said. “I haven’t been this grateful to play for a coach in my whole life. I am extremely grateful to play for him. I love that guy to death.”

Then there are the injuries. McNamara, a transfer from Michigan, injured his right quad on Aug. 12 which prevented him from scrambling, bootlegs, rollouts or even traditional dropbacks. Then on Sept. 30, McNamara tore his left ACL to end his season.

On Sept. 16, tight end Luke Lachey broke his leg in gruesome fashion. On Oct. 14, tight end Erick All suffered a torn ACL on a low hit from a Wisconsin linebacker. Perhaps most painful of all, Nagurski finalist Cooper DeJean — a likely consensus All-American cornerback — broke his right leg in practice on Wednesday while working with the offense.



Iowa’s DeJean suffers leg injury, out for regular season

There are others on offense who have missed significant time, including running backs Kaleb Johnson (ankle) and Jaziun Patterson (soft tissue), receiver Diante Vines (leg), center Logan Jones (ankle) and guard Nick DeJong (elbow).

“Not just individually, but as a team, we have gone through a lot this year with injuries and whatever else,” Hill said. “I think it just shows the resiliency of this team and how determined everybody is. We just keep pushing forward each and every day.

“It has got to be the story of our season.”

Perhaps Hill’s growth is the most pivotal. Through his first four games as Iowa’s primary quarterback, he completed just 36.7 percent of his passes for 94.5 yards per game. In the last three, Hill has completed 65.3 percent for 151.7 yards per game.

“It has just been amazing seeing him progress,” Johnson said. “He was at Wisconsin last year and he didn’t really get a lot of playing time. He didn’t get a lot of playing time when he first got here. For Cade to get hurt was kind of a devastating moment, but it was an opportunity for him.”

Hill’s improvement also coincides with the rise of receiver Kaleb Brown. After playing sparingly for most of the season, the Ohio State transfer stepped in for Vines against Northwestern and caught a 23-yard pass to set up the game-winning field goal. In the last two weeks alone, Brown has 14 targets.

‘Look at us now’

The love and admiration Iowa’s players have for departing offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz belies the statistics. That’s not the case for Kirk Ferentz.

In the locker room Saturday, nobody could find a football, so defensive coordinator Phil Parker held up an Iowa helmet and looked at the head coach. Parker broke down when he talked of his long-time colleague, who passed Michigan legend Bo Schembechler for third place in wins by a Big Ten coach with 195. Kirk Ferentz tried to downplay it — eventually, a football was found — but the moment touched the 68-year-old coach.

“It’s a Michigan State guy giving a ball to the guy who moved past a guy from Michigan,” Ferentz quipped about the three-time All-Big Ten safety. “A little self-serving on his part, quite frankly.

“Think about Phil Parker. He’s been here 25 years now. In this environment of coaching, good luck finding — he’s had two jobs now in his career. So there aren’t many guys smart enough to know they’ve got a good thing. Phil has and what a job he’s done.”

The Hawkeyes have given up two touchdowns in the last five games. They lost two-year starting defensive tackle Noah Shannon, who wagered on the Iowa women’s basketball team in the Final Four last spring and it cost him the entire season. Four defenders from last year’s squad are on NFL rosters, including first-round picks Jack Campbell and Lukas Van Ness, plus three other starters left the program.

Yet, Iowa ranks second in yards per play allowed (4.0), third in scoring defense (12.4) and seventh in total defense (281.4 yards per game). That’s even playing 774 defensive snaps because of the offensive struggles this year.

But never did the players engage in self-pity or finger-pointing. After a 31-0 loss at Penn State in Week 4, Evans laid down the mental framework for this season.

“How many guys we have on the team; 120 guys against anybody,” Evans said that night. “We’re going to stay together and we’re going to get through this together as a whole team.”

Two months later, mission accomplished — at least for the Big Ten West.

“I said that all of our goals are still out there in front of us,” Evans said Saturday. “I’m sure they laughed at that. But look at us now.”

(Photo of Kirk and Brian Ferentz: Jeffrey Becker / USA Today)

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