IOWA CITY, Iowa — Three of Iowa’s four rivalry trophies reside inside the foyer at its football fortress.
Floyd of Rosedale easily is the most historic and recognizable. That 98-pound porker shared with Minnesota is the George Washington on college football’s Mount Rivalry Rushmore. The other three trophies with Wisconsin, Iowa State and Nebraska are more important as symbols of victory than for their consequential value.
There’s no trophy involved with the Hawkeyes’ series with Northwestern. In some ways that’s a shame. For the last generation, those battles have become as significant as any other for either school.
“Those games are so fun,” Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson said. “We could play for a bag of chips and it would be worth it. We have one trophy game that we played for [against Illinois], but it seems like Iowa is a trophy game every year, as well.”
Thorson brings up a good point. When Nebraska joined the Big Ten, the Heroes Trophy was inaugurated with Iowa. A few years later, the Cornhuskers and Badgers started playing for the Freedom Trophy. Even going farther back, when Penn State became a Big Ten member in 1993, trophies with Minnesota (Governor’s Victory Bell) and Michigan State (Land Grant Trophy) became shoulder-shrugging trinkets.
So it’s fair to say a trophy between Iowa and Northwestern might cheapen the series rather than enhance it. Either way, it’s spirited and important. It’s unpredictable and seasons often are shaped by the outcome. That’s clearly the case this Saturday when Iowa (4-2, 1-2 Big Ten) travels to Northwestern (3-3, 1-2).
In 2015, the banged-up No. 17 Hawkeyes — who missed their both starting tackles and top two running backs as well as quarterback who barely could walk — pounded No. 20 Northwestern 40-10. That game told the world Iowa was capable of running the regular-season table, which it did. The teams combined to win 22 games that year.
In 2009, No. 4 Iowa was 9-0 and played host to Northwestern. After taking a 10-0 lead, the Hawkeyes appeared ready to plow over the Wildcats. Instead, quarterback Ricky Stanzi was sacked in the end zone and fumbled, which was recovered for a Northwestern touchdown. Stanzi suffered a high-ankle sprain and was out for eight weeks. The Wildcats secured a 17-10 upset.
A year later, Big Ten co-leader Iowa led Northwestern 17-7 midway through the fourth quarter. Wildcats quarterback Dan Persa rallied his squad for two fourth quarter touchdowns to win 21-17. Persa tore his Achilles tendon on the game-winning touchdown pass and ripped out Iowa’s hearts along with it.
From 2008 through 2010, Iowa led Northwestern by at least 10 points in every game and lost them all. In 2013, the Iowa players rushed from the sidelines to the playing field after beating the Wildcats 17-10 in overtime. Northwestern players celebrated just as wildly last fall after upsetting Iowa 38-31.
Iowa fans who remember 1974-1994, struggle to accept this series as a rivalry. The Hawkeyes won 21 games in a row and were so dominant coach Hayden Fry allegedly told Northwestern counterpart Gary Barnett, “I hope we didn’t hurt any of your boys” after a 49-13 blowout in 1994. That condescension fueled Barnett and the Wildcats, and a war of words ensued before the 1995 meeting.
“I want to hurt Iowa,” Northwestern center Rob Johnson said.
“Let’s say we don’t really care for them,” Northwestern cornerback Chris Martin said.
“This team wants Iowa so much,” Barnett said. “I can’t put it into words. We’ve waited 12 months for this.”
“They’re playing good football, but you’ve got to respect a team that’s beaten you the last 21 years,” Iowa wingback Tim Dwight said.
“I haven’t done anything to make them mad, except win,” Fry said. “If that makes them mad, then they’re mad.”
And Fry added the cherry on top.
“After 21 straight, they’ve still got to show me they can whip us,” he said.
With ESPN’s College GameDay airing live, Northwestern snapped the generational losing skid with a 31-20 victory. The Wildcats claimed a share of the Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl berth in one of college football’s greatest stories. That game turned a one-sided series into a full-blown rivalry that continues today.
Five years later, a 3-9 Iowa squad thwarted No. 12 Northwestern’s Rose Bowl hopes with a 27-17 win. In 2005, the Hawkeyes led 27-14 with 2 minutes, 10 seconds left in the game. Northwestern scored a touchdown, recovered an onside kick, then scored again for a 28-27.
Shared history and mutual pain often define rivalries. This series has that. In the next installment Saturday, one side remains in the Big Ten West Division race with a win. The loser falls out. But even more important, neither side wants to lose to the other. That’s been evident throughout the current players’ lifetimes.