IOWA CITY, Iowa — Three days removed from Iowa’s 14-13 upset win over then-No. 3 Michigan, an afterglow still illuminates Fortress Kinnick.
Instead of shrugs, players are getting back-slaps. Helmets taken from the field during the crowd rush were returned to their proper places, even if it took police involvement. It’s a good week to be a Hawkeye in Iowa City.
The jovial tone set Saturday night replaced the indifference that gripped the fan base late last week. Pregame conversations with fans revealed almost an apathetic concession when facing Michigan. My, how that’s changed over the last 72 or so hours.
“Our guys are out there every day,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “And last week, I’m sure they were hearing some negativity, just guessing they were. Now it’s just the opposite.
“Really the challenge is to ignore both of those things and focus on what you’re trying to do.”
The Hawkeyes (6-4, 4-3 Big Ten) have a chance at upward mobility in the Big Ten’s bowl structure. They could end the year on a high after stumbling through the midseason. But as Saturday’s shocker proved, nothing is automatic in college football. That certainly includes this week’s game at Illinois. If anything, Iowa’s biggest opponent this week might be complacency.
The Fighting Illini (3-7, 2-5) can push two big buttons against the Hawkeyes. They have a pair of defensive ends in Carroll Phillips and Dawuane Smoot who have combined for nearly 30 tackles for loss. The Illini also have home run hitters at running back, boasting five runs of 50-plus yards. The rest of the team includes one of the nation’s worst offenses on third down (125th nationally) and a defense that can’t stop the run, ranking 96th. There’s your 3-7 season in a nutshell.
Sounds like a recipe for Iowa’s success, right? So did another game 8 years ago.
The coincidental moments between this Iowa team and one that played in 2008 are striking, even a little creepy. Both of those squads were 5-4, faced an undefeated No. 3-ranked opponent in the dark at Kinnick Stadium for the annual blackout game. The Hawkeyes won both games with a last-second field goal into the south end zone and fans streamed on to the field.
One week after upsetting No. 3 Penn State, the 2008 Iowa squad played a team with a losing record in Purdue and the No. 95-ranked run defense. It was 35 degrees, cloudy, windy and wet at Kinnick Stadium. Iowa seemingly controlled the game but two missed extra points and gave the Boilermakers an opportunity. Iowa led 22-17 with 1 minute, 9 seconds left when Purdue took over at its 20. Quarterback Curtis Painter drove the Boilermakers to Iowa’s 27 and launched a Hail Mary pass into the end zone on the game’s final play. It fell incomplete, and the Hawkeyes survived.
“For me, that’s fresh in my memory,” Ferentz recalled of the Purdue win. “There are a lot of parallels there. That was a tough, hard-fought kind of hard game. I would expect that to be. Looks like we’re going to have Big Ten weather. I’m guessing it will be a tough, gritty game.”
Purdue wasn’t in Iowa’s class that year. All-American running back Shonn Greene ran for 211 yards for the Hawkeyes, who passed for only 72. But the uneven status didn’t matter. Just about anybody in the Big Ten can punch up a weight class and score a knockout. That’s what Iowa did last Saturday to Michigan. That’s what Illinois could do to Iowa this Saturday.
The temperature is expected to hit the high 30s by kickoff. Meteorologists predict winds to whip from 25-35 mph with major gusts. According to Vivid Seats, tickets, prices for 50-yard line seats start $28. Neither the weather nor the atmosphere will compare with what Iowa experienced last week at Kinnick. Sometimes it’s difficult to find the energy in an opposing stadium when it’s chilly and half empty.
That’s where Iowa’s process comes into play. Ferentz preaches and the players echo the 24-hour rule. They can celebrate or stew about a game’s outcome, then by Monday it’s time to move on to the next challenge. It played to Iowa’s benefit last week when coming off a 41-14 thumping at Penn State. That mindset will prove critical against Illinois.
Ferentz relayed that message to his team this week, and it seems to have taken root. It’s all about Illinois.
“He’s given us certain examples in the past, of Iowa history, certain things that he believes that show the resilience, show the determination of other teams and how it worked out for them,” Iowa LB Josey Jewell said. “So he really forces in it your head, but it’s a good kind of forcing. He explains himself very well behind all of his details.”
“We’ve just got to realize it’s a two-game season right now,” Iowa QB C.J. Beathard said. “We’ve got two big games left and the first one is Illinois. Like we did against Penn State, we put that one (Michigan) past us. We put a tough loss behind us, and we’ve got to put that win behind us as well and move on to Illinois.”
The Hawkeyes have the right approach to the rest of their season. If they live the 24-hour mantra and execute, they’ll win this week. But if there’s a lingering effect from last week’s victory, Iowa will suffer the same fate as Michigan last week. And the enthusiasm in Iowa City will fade faster than a late November sunset.