The best of the best from the opposing side since 1992

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Saquon Barkley eludes former Iowa linebacker Josey Jewell for a big gain. Photo by Jeff Yoder

By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa – One of neatest things about covering the Iowa Hawkeyes is the connection you have with the opponents, or more specifically, with the student-athletes from the other teams.

I have compiled numerous top-10 lists over the years in which I rank the best Hawkeyes in this or that or the best teams or moments in program history.

But I had never ranked Iowa's opponents in any fashion until now.

The inspiration came from recently being asked who I felt was the best opposing player to have faced Iowa in any sport during my time on the Hawkeye beat, which dates back to 1992.

Having never given it much thought, I started compiling names of former student-athletes who were gifted from a talent standpoint and had both team or individual success against Iowa or both, and soon had a list with over 50 names.

A pattern also developed in which football players were being listed far more than any other sport, which is due partly to football being covered more extensively than any other sport.

The list of candidates continued to grow after I reached out on social media asking for suggestions. I want to thank those who responded because your feedback was valuable and much appreciated.

It led to two former college stars – Cael Sanderson and James Hardy – both making the list because I probably wouldn’t have thought of either of them on my own.

But after being reminded about Sanderson’s greatness and about Hardy’s dominance against Iowa, I decided they both should be on the list.

Some made the list thanks to sustained success and excellence against Iowa, while others made it by dominating in just one game.

There is no right or wrong with a list of this kind because it’s so subjective. This is simply my list based on what I’ve observed since 1992, based on the feedback from fans and based on who I remember because I'm willing to admit that I probably have forgotten or overlooked some worthy candidates.

And remember, the time frame starts in 1992, so you won’t see any mention of Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Lafester Rhodes, Lorenzo White or Bobby Olive, all of whom were Hawkeye killers before I arrived on the beat.

1. Orlando Pace, offensive lineman, Ohio State – In all of my years of covering the Hawkeyes, this force of nature stands above everyone else.

Pace was nicknamed the “Pancake Man” in reference to all of his blocks in which his opponent would be flattened on his back from the force of Pace’s block.

He was massive and mobile, a perfectly designed blocking machine who made a huge impression on me with his dominance.

Lots of fans probably wouldn’t even think of putting Pace on their list because it’s easy to minimize or ignore the accomplishments of an offensive lineman.

But I chose not to in his case because Pace truly was special.

I once watched him block three Iowa players almost at the same time simply by moving whatever was in front of him out of the way.

Pace was a two-time consensus first-team All-American, and won the Outland Trophy in 1996 for the best college football interior lineman. He won the Lombardi Award for the best college lineman or linebacker in 1995 and 1996, becoming the only two-time winner of that award, and the most recent (through 2017) offensive lineman to be honored.

Pace was drafted by the St. Louis Rams, first overall in the 1997 NFL Draft, and played professionally for the Rams for 12 years. He started all 16 regular season games eight times in his pro career.

2. Saquon Barkley, running back, Penn State – He turned Kinnick Stadium into his own grand stage this past Sept. 23rd by racking up 358 all-purpose yards, including 211 rushing yards, during a 21-19 victory that wasn’t decided until Penn State receiver Juwan Johnson caught a game-winning touchdown pass as time expired.

Barkley showed breath-taking moves in open field, incredible power and leaping ability, and soft hands as he also had 12 catches for 94 yards.

It was as perfect a performance from a running back that you’ll ever see, a spectacular blend of power, speed and finesse.

That performance alone probably would’ve earned Barkley a spot on the list, but he also shredded Iowa in 2016 for 167 rushing yards and a 44-yard touchdown reception during a 41-14 beat-down in State College, Pa.

3. Antwaan Randle El, quarterback, Indiana – The Hoosiers won three of four games against Iowa from 1998 to 2001 with Randle El playing quarterback. He rushed for over 100 yards twice against the Hawkeyes and also threw for 247 yards during a 38-31 victory in 1999.

Randle El became the first player in NCAA Division history to pass for 40 career touchdowns and score 40 career rushing touchdowns. In 2001, he was named the Big Ten’s Most Valuable Player and he finished his collegiate career ranked fifth on the all-time total yardage list, and became the first player in college football history to record 2,500 total yards for each of four consecutive years.

Tallying 7,469 passing yards, 3,895 rushing yards, and 92 touchdowns running and passing for his college career, he finish sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting in his senior season.

Perhaps the best way to describe Randle El for those who didn’t see him play for the Hoosiers is imagine Tim Dwight being slightly bigger and playing quarterback. Randle El was a decent passer, but he did most of his damage as an electrifying runner. He often turned broken plays into key first downs.

4. Seneca Wallace, quarterback, Iowa State – Football is considered the ultimate team sport, but Iowa State probably wouldn’t have won either game against Iowa in 2001 and 2002 without Wallace playing quarterback.

He was the difference in both games, his ability to make pin-point passes and his ability to improvise with his legs were too much for Iowa to contain.

Trailing 24-7 at halftime in 2002, Wallace led an incredible comeback as Iowa State escaped from Kinnick Stadium with a stunning 36-31 victory against an Iowa team that would go on to finish undefeated in the Big Ten and 11-2 overall. The former junior-college star from California completed 23-of-37 passes for 361 yards and one touchdown, while also running for a touchdown.

Wallace also completed 15 of his first 16 passes during a 17-14 victory over Iowa in 2001. He finished 20-of-27 overall for 228 yards and one touchdown.

In two seasons at Iowa State, Wallace passed for 5,289 yards and 26 touchdowns. He added more than 900 yards on the ground and 15 rushing touchdowns.

5. Cael Sanderson, wrestling, Iowa State – Let's continue with the Iowa State theme because if anybody deserves to be compared to the legendary Dan Gable, it’s this emerging legend.

Sanderson never lost a match in college and was a four-time NCAA champion and an Olympic Gold Medalist.

He is now the head coach for Penn State, which has won seven of the last eight national titles and should be favored to win another next season.

But that has nothing to do with making this list.

Sanderson made it became he never lost in college. He faced an opponent from Iowa four years in a row and prevailed each time.

As I mentioned before, Sanderson probably wouldn’t have cracked the top 10 without the feedback from fans on social media. His name was mentioned probably the second most behind Antwaan Randle El after I had reached out to fans on Twitter asking for suggestions.

6. Christian McCaffrey, running back, Stanford – One of the greatest seasons in the history of the Iowa football program ended in disaster at the 2016 Rose Bowl, and it was due mostly to this guy.

Many of the fans at the Rose Bowl weren’t even seated when McCaffrey scored on a 75-yard pass on the first play from scrimmage.

McCaffrey caught a short pass over the middle and then sprinted untouched into the end zone. He made Iowa’s defenders look slow on the play, and it was a disturbing sign of things to come.

McCaffrey torched Iowa much the same way that Barkley did last season by amassing over 300 all-purpose yards,. McCaffrey rushed for 172 yards, caught four passes for 104 yards and returned a punt 63 yards for a touchdown during the 45-16 drubbing.

7. Glenn Robinson, forward, Purdue – The Gary, Ind., native was a scoring machine as he averaged a whopping 30.3 points per game during the 1993-94 season.

An under-matched Iowa squad had no answer for the 6-foot-8 Robinson on Feb. 6, 1994 as he scored 34 points during an 87-78 victory at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

His performance earned high praise from Iowa coach Tom Davis after the game.

“I think when you saw they needed a basket, or we were making a run at them, he would come up with the answer,” Davis said. “He is literally unstoppable.”

Nicknamed the “Big Dog,” Robinson scored a Big Ten record 1,030 points during the 1993-94 season and was the consensus National Player of the Year.

8. James Hardy, receiver, Indiana – In three games against Iowa, the 6-foot-7 Hardy had 24 catches for 420 yards and five touchdowns.

Hardy was a standout receiver for the Hoosiers from 2005-07. His record-setting career saw him rack up 2,740 yards and 36 receiving touchdowns before entering the NFL draft. He led the Big Ten in receiving touchdowns in both 2006 and 2007.

Hardy never achieved stardom in the NFL, however, as his life ended in tragedy last June at the age of 31. His body was found floating in a river in his hometown of Fort Wayne Indiana. His death was later ruled a suicide.

9. Plaxico Burress, receiver, Michigan State – There were some Kodak moments from Kirk Ferentz’s first season as the Iowa head coach in 1999, but almost all of them came at the expense of the 1-10 Hawkeyes.

And that was never more apparent than when Iowa tried to defend the 6-6, 230-pound Burress, who would go on to be a star in the NFL.

It was a hopeless cause due to Burress’ immense skills and size. It was like man against boys, only the man showed no mercy during Michigan State’s 49-3 beat-down in East lansing, Mich.

Burress had three touchdown catches, and made each one look easy.

10. LeShon Johnson, running back, Northern Illinois – The final spot came down to former Northern Illinois running back LeShon Johnson, former Northern Iowa running back David Johnson, former Penn State wrestler Zain Retherford and former Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor.

LeShon Johnson gets the slight edge because he played for a Northern Illinois team that had no chance of defeating Iowa in 1993, yet, he still rushed for an absurd amount of yards and did so in electrifying fashion.  

Johnson shredded Iowa’s defense for 306 rushing yards, including 221 in the second half. Iowa was clearly the better team as evidenced by its 54-20 victory on Nov. 6, 1993, but Johnson was by far the best player on the field that day and arguably the best collegiate running back in the nation during that season.

Johnson is the only player on the list who didn't defeat Iowa, but for one afternoon in early November 1993, his performance was incredible as shown in the video below.

Also considered: David Johnson, football, Northern Iowa; Zain Retherford, wrestling Penn State; Terrelle Pryor, football, Ohio State; Andy Katzenmoyer, football, Ohio State; Shawn Respert, basketball, Michigan State; Ron Dayne, football, Wisconsin; Lavar Arrington, football, Penn State; Eddie George, football; Ohio State; Simeon Rice, football, Illinois; Dan Persa, football, Northwestern; Mo Peterson, basketball; Michigan State; Chris Webber, basketball, Michigan; Kyle Schwarber, baseball, Indiana; Terry Glenn, football, Ohio State; Melvin Gordon, football, Wisconsin; Brock Lesnar, wrestling, Minnesota; Kijana Carter, football, Penn State; Tyrone Wheatley, football, Michigan; Calbert Cheaney, basketball, Indiana; Grant Hill, basketball, Duke; Laurence Maroney, football, Minnesota; Charles Woodson, football, Michigan; J.J. Watt, football, Wisconsin; Greg Oden, basketball, Ohio State; Rodney Rogers, basketball, Wake Forest; Pat Fitzgerald, football, Northwestern; Ronnie Dawson, baseball, Ohio State; Anthony Mahoungou, receiver, Purdue; Robert Smith, running back Ohio State; Joe Crispen, basketball, Penn State; Bobby Engram, receiver, Penn State; Dee Brown, basketball, Illinois; Kevin Williams, football; Miami (Fla.).