By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The 2018 Iowa football team will be remembered mostly for what it could have been or for what it should have been, and that’s fair.
The Hawkeyes flirted briefly with elite status this season by winning six of their first seven games, but then they lost three consecutive Big Ten games by a combined 12 points, making them irrelevant on the big stage, and making some fans frustrated.
Those same fans now have reason to feel better after Iowa escaped with a 31-28 victory over Nebraska in the regular-season finale on Friday at Kinnick Stadium.
They also have reason to thank a 14-player senior class that refused to wilt in the face of adversity.
Parker Hesse and his senior cohorts won’t leave as Big Ten West Division champions, and that hurts because Iowa was so close to being special this season.
The difference between winning and losing has been razor thin, and sometimes, that is harder to accept than getting crushed because you agonize over two or three plays in each of the four losses that could have shifted the outcome.
There was nearly more to agonize about on Friday as a vastly-improved Nebraska team pushed Iowa to edge before losing on a 41-yard field goal by Miguel Recinos as time expired.
There is no denying that Nebraska is moving in the right direction under Scott Frost, and that’s why it was important for Iowa to win on Friday in order to slow down Nebraska’s rise.
It was also important to win for the seniors, and for the team as a whole, and for the fans, because a loss to Nebraska would have gone over like somebody passing gas in a crowded elevator.
Nebraska fans would have become even more insufferable had their team prevailed on Friday, and that’s hard to even imagine.
It was fitting that Recinos was the hero because he is one of the 14 seniors who made their final appearance at Kinnick Stadium on Friday.
The Mason City native is part of a senior class that has combined to win 36 games and that will have played in four consecutive bowl games, including the 2016 Rose, by the time they’re finished.
The seniors also finished 4-0 against Nebraska, Minnesota and Iowa State.
“Really happy for our seniors, can't say enough about them,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said after the game. “I've been talking about them all season long. Feel even stronger now. Maybe as much as anything, for a moment like at the end there with Miguel, to me it kind of represents what's great about sports.
“It's fitting that he was a senior. Just had one of his more disappointing moments of his career minutes before that. Then he came out and nailed that field goal at the end. Just really pleased for him. I think that's representative of the whole senior class.
Ferentz was referring to the 37-yard field that Recinos had missed earlier in the fourth quarter with Iowa clinging to a 28-20 lead.
The situation seemed bleak after Nebraska had evened the score at 28 with 3 minutes, 22 seconds left to play because it looked and felt like Iowa was on the verge of losing another close game.
And this loss would have been so hard to take under the circumstances with it being Senior Day and with Nebraska the opponent.
But this time Iowa executed with the game on the line and now the seniors will have a chance to end their career in a warm and sunny climate, which sure beats playing at Yankee Stadium in New York City in late December, as was the case last season when Iowa defeated Boston College 27-20 in the Pinstripe Bowl in winter-like conditions.
“I have no idea,” Ferentz said when asked about Iowa’s bowl destination. “I know it will be warmer than last year. I’ll make a prediction, go out on a limb. We had a great experience last year. I'm not minimizing that at all. It was a great experience. We're looking forward to wherever they want to send us.”
Iowa, with an 8-4 record, is mostly likely headed to the Holiday Bowl in San Diego for the first time since 1991, but nothing is certain at this stage.
A loss to Nebraska would have almost certainly eliminated Iowa from the Holiday Bowl discussion.
“Hopefully, a little warmer than last year. That would be a plus,” Iowa senior center Keegan Render said when asked to access the bowl situation. “But at the same time, we’ll get to that when it comes.
“But right now, it’s celebrate with your teammates, especially us seniors. We’re actually having a get-together and just enjoying each other’s company. We’ve only got a month left, so enjoy the moment of it.”
The seniors deserve some time to celebrate and to reflect on what they’ve accomplished and what they still could accomplish by winning a bowl game.
The seniors have a chance to lead Iowa to a ninth victory, which is pretty significant. Iowa has won at least nine games in six seasons under Ferentz, but only once has Iowa finished with exactly nine wins under Ferentz.
That happened in 2008 when All-America running back Shonn Greene led Iowa to a 9-4 record and to six victories in the last seven games.
That season served as a springboard to the 2009 season when Iowa finished 11-2 and defeated Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl.
The hope is that this season will serve as a similar springboard to next season.
But that’s putting the cart way in front of the horse at this stage.
Iowa has a bunch of key players returning for next season, including the most dynamic one-two punch at tight end in college football in Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson.
But it’s uncertain if Fant, a third-year junior, and Hockenson, a third-year sophomore, will even be around next season because they both plan to explore their NFL draft status after the season.
The senior class deserves praise for helping the team stay the course despite some major obstacles, and for creating a chemistry that has allowed the players to persevere.
Recinos said the support and encouragement that he received from his teammates after missing the field goal in the fourth quarter made a huge difference. He knew it was more than just lip service and that they really believed in him.
And then Recinos showed why his teammates believed in him by coming through in the clutch.
“Nobody is going to quit on him,” Render said. “He’s been here five years just like the rest of us. We have the utmost confidence in him.”
Render was looking forward to celebrating a late Thanksgiving with his family and extended family, many of whom live in western Iowa and cheer for the Cornhuskers.
He can hold his head up high when he travels to western Iowa on Saturday after finishing 4-0 against Nebraska, Iowa State and Minnesota.
“It’ll be nice for me,” Render said. “Just a little extra incentive. It just means a little more.”
The seniors also can be proud of how they've led with poise and with class, which is more than you can say about the Nebraska players, who seemed to chirp throughout Friday's game, and before it as one of the Nebraska seniors even guaranteed a victory.
"That's not our culture,' said Iowa senior defensive back Jake Gervase. "Our coaches don't preach that."
Ferentz showed up to his post-game press conference with his lip still bloodied from being hit accidently by the helmet of Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley during the wild post-game celebration.
The blood almost seemed like a badge of honor for Ferentz because it represented toughness, which his team showed on Friday, especially the seniors.
"The bottom line is, games get decided on the field," Ferentz said. "It's all about performance, what guys do out on the field. I thought our guys did a good job starting Sunday, getting ready. They prepared very well all week, really focused. Not being in school can be a good thing, it can be a bad thing. I thought our guys really matured and prepared well."
The 63-year old Ferentz earned a $500,000 bonus for leading Iowa to eight victories, but that probably doesn't sit well with some fans who feel that Ferentz's contract is too one-sided.
But you can't blame the players for adding to Ferentz's financial empire because they were just trying to win a football game that meant a great deal to the senior class.
And it was mission accomplished, thanks to Iowa's senior kicker.