Iowa football team deserves praise for staying on difficult course, and for its resolve

Iowa freshman running back Tyler Goodson fights for yards against Nebraska

By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Some might disagree with calling the Iowa football team’s 2019 regular season a success, and so be it.

Opinions vary, and that is certainly the case with how this 9-3 Iowa team should be perceived.

Instead of praising the team for winning nine games during the regular season for just the 12th time in program history, those who aren't completely satisfied would point to the three losses to Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin by a combined 14 points as proof that Iowa couldn’t win the big games that separate good teams from great teams.

Instead of praising senior quarterback Nate Stanley for being 3-0 as a starter against Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa State and Illinois, those who aren't completely satisfied would point to him being 0-3 against Wisconsin and Penn State, and 1-2 against Northwestern and Purdue.

Instead of praising the defense for being one of the best in the Big Ten, those who aren't satisfied would counter with the offense being ranked 10th in the conference in rushing.

Instead of boasting about Keith Duncan’s Big Ten record 29 field goals made, those who aren't satisfied would complain about him having only made 25 point-after kicks and blame that on the offense for performing poorly in the red zone.

You could go back and forth about this Iowa team, which defeated Nebraska 27-24 on Black Friday in Lincoln, Neb., to cap a 9-3 regular season.

It marks just the sixth time in 21 seasons under Kirk Ferentz that Iowa has won at least nine games during the regular, with the last time being in 2015 when Iowa ran the table at 12-0.

But instead of embracing that accomplishment, some would point out that Iowa hasn’t won a Big Ten title since 2004, and that Wisconsin continues to be a better and more relevant version of Iowa.

Instead of being impressed with Iowa’s 3-1 record in November, some would point to the 24-22 loss on Nov. 9th at Wisconsin because it all but eliminated Iowa from the Big Ten West Division race.

“As I’ve been saying all month, it’s never easy in November, Big Ten, football, conference football, the weather gets a little interesting, so I’m really proud of our guys with what they’ve done in the course of this month going 3-1 and coming off a real rebound from a tough loss at the start of the month,” Kirk Ferentz said after the victory over Nebraska, which was Iowa’s fifth in a row in the series. “So I’m just really proud of the way this team has answered every challenge that’s been throwen in front of them, and today was no different.”

I’m with Ferentz in feeling that this Iowa team deserves praise for the staying course, and for staying motivated and focused on the task at hand, even after the chance to be a Big Ten champion was beyond reach.

Some will likely accuse me of accepting mediocrity for feeling that a 9-3 regular-season never should be taken lightly,or for granted at Iowa.

But if mediocrity is being just one bowl victory from winning at least 10 games for only the ninth time in program history, then mediocrity isn't so bad.

A 10-win season would be a worthy achievement, and should be applauded rather than scrutinized or dismissed if it happens.

“That would be great to add another one,” said Iowa junior defensive end Chauncey Golston. “That would add to your legacy of how this team will be remembered.

“A ten-win team, who going’s to overlook that?”

Certainly, not me, especially when I picked Iowa to finish 8-4 in August, and to lose at Iowa State and Nebraska.

Iowa has actually exceeded my expectations for the regular season, thanks partly to the 18-17 victory at Iowa State.

I figured the schedule would keep Iowa from being a conference contender, and that is ultimately what happened.

But the schedule hasn’t kept Iowa from having a season that deserves respect and admiration.

All you have to do is look at Nebraska to see how quickly the circumstances can change.

A program that used to make wining nine games during the regular season look incredibly easy has now combined to win just nine games over the past two seasons, and has had three consecutive losing seasons.

Nebraska destroyed Iowa 42-7 in Kirk Ferentz’s first game as head coach in 1999, but the final score wasn’t as lopsided as the matchup on the field.

It wasn’t man against boys, but rather a program that still was hanging on to elite status in Nebraska against an Iowa program that was in serious need of repair.

And here we are two decades later and Iowa is dominating the series with Nebraska, and the 64-year old Ferentz is now ranked fourth all-time in career wins among Big Ten coaches.

He passed his legendary predecessor, Hayden Fry, with Big Ten career win No. 97 on Friday against Nebraska.

Iowa is also 20-7 over it last 27 games, and bowl eligible for the 18th time in the last 19 seasons.

It is easy for those who either follow or cover the Iowa football team to take for granted the sustained success and stability that Kirk Ferentz has achieved.

Iowa certainly isn’t at the level of Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State. But Iowa also isn’t at the level of Nebraska, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Northwestern, Purdue and Rutgers.

Minnesota also has to have more than just one breakthrough season to match Iowa’s decades of consistency, while Michigan State is showing signs of decline under Mark Dantonio.

The Spartans were at a higher level than Iowa for much of the past decade, but now they’re at a lower level, which points to their inconsistency and instability and to Iowa’s consistency and stability.

This Iowa team is also loaded with individual star power on both offense and defense.

From the dominance of defensive end A.J. Epenesa to the explosiveness of freshman running back Tyler Goodson to the security provided by mammoth offensive tackles Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs, Iowa’s 2019 roster includes some of the best players in program history, and some who have the potential to be ranked among the best, including freshman receiver Tyrone Tracy Jr.

And, of course, there is Nate Stanley, who is similar in some respects to the team he leads.

Stanley's supporters will be point to his statistics, his durability and to his 26-12 record as the starting quarterback, while his detractors will point to his record against elite opponents.

My view on Stanley is that the good far outweighs the bad.

He has represented Iowa with class, won a lot of games and been highly productive.

And it’s never about him, which is what you want in a leader.

“It’s extremely special to be with these guys,” Stanley said of his teammates after the Nebraska game. “I’m extremely happy and proud of every single person on this team. We continue to put in super hard work and a super effort.

“It’s just a blast, really, these last three weeks, especially, but the 11 months leading up to these last three weeks.”

One of the big storylines to come from the Nebraska game was that Kirk Ferentz chose to take a chance on offense in the closing seconds rather than go into overtime. He was rewarded as Stanley led Iowa into field-goal position, which set the stage for Duncan to make the game winner from 48 yards with one second remaining.

Ferentz's throw-caution-to-the-wind decision came close to a decade after he chose to go into overtime at Ohio State in what turned into a 27-24 loss.

Ferentz was asked after Friday's game about the different approach and he pointed to Stanley’s experience as a three-year starter, whereas in 2009, redshirt freshman James Vandenberg was making his first career start for the injued the Ricky Stanzi.

“And we’ve evolved a little bit in ten years, I guess it’s been a decade, coincidently,” Ferentz said. “That was just our thought. We felt we may have had a chance if we executed.”

Another storyline to emerge from Friday is that Duncan, along with sophomore safety Jack Koerner and sophomore offensive guard Kyler Schott, were all told that they will be put on scholarship.

Ferentz said he feels like Santa Claus whenever he can reward a walk-on with a scholarship, and he should because it truly is a gift that comes from hard work and from sacrifice.

Koerner hadn't even told his parents when he met with the media after Friday's game.

"I did not expect them to tell it to me right then and there," Koerner said. "So it really kind of took me back. It was just really a great feeling." 

As for Iowa’s bowl destination, I couldn’t begin to tell you which is most likely to get Stanley and his cohorts, but the options include the Holiday Bowl in San Diego and the Citrus Bowl in Orlando.

Either of those warm destinations would be a nice way to end the season, especially if it included a 10th victory.

Can we all, at least, agree on that?