Let's start here: The 20 best days of the last 7,305 days
Narrowing a list of Kirk Ferentz's 143 wins at Iowa down to 40 is pretty easy. There are a lot of wins against Ball State and Indiana that can be largely ignored, and most nonconference games are made for easy wins.
Getting from 40 down to 20 is a much more difficult task, one that demands a set criteria and thorough analysis. Do you include a game that has large personal ramifications for Ferentz and the program at large if it holds no national or historical significance, such as the 1999 Northern Illinois win or the 2001 Alamo Bowl victory over Texas Tech? Do you include incredible finishes in games where Iowa probably should have won by 20, like the double-field-goal-block in 2009 Northern Iowa and the double overtime goal line stand against Syracuse in 2006? What about a win over a probably-overrated middle-ranked rival (2016 Nebraska) or surprising bowl victory (2010 Missouri)?
At the end of the day, "Best Games" means they have to be memorable for some reason, either a miracle play or national significance or some other thing that instantaneously triggers the memory of that game. We'll eventually get to "Biggest Plays" or "Best Moments" or something of that ilk, and these might well make another appearance, but for this week, this is how I'm ranking the 20 best wins of the Kirk Ferentz tenure at Iowa.
20. Iowa 6, Penn State 4
October 23, 2003
There are people who claim to hate this game. They should just become Iowa State fans, because 6-4 is our ugly baby, and ugly babies need to be loved, too.
Of course, the memorable part of this game is the score, and the "screw you" safety Iowa took toward the end, but it's often forgotten that this game was played just two days after -- and one short car trip from -- the funeral of Kirk Ferentz's dad. And so when you see things like Robbie Gould (yes, THAT Robbie Gould) miss a 25-yard field goal, or a 3rd-and-8 draw play go for nine yards, or a tipped pass falling into the hands of a diving Marcus Paschal, there feels like a bit of divine intervention at play.
Iowa scored all of its points in the first 20 minutes of the game and held on by its fingernails for the next 40. A blocked field goal gave Penn State first and goal at the 10. They got nothing. Another drive to the Iowa 15 was stopped on an interception near the pylon. Iowa's defense simply was not rattled by anything Penn State did. Think about this: The FU safety was an obvious message to Paterno that they were not getting into field goal range, let alone scoring a touchdown. It came with EIGHT MINUTES TO GO. And immediately following the free kick, Antwaan Allen picked off Michael Robinson. Iowa ran out the rest of the clock, and Kirk hugged James and cried.
God, I love 6-4 so much, and you should, too.
19. Iowa 10, No. 19 Illinois 7
October 13, 2007
2007 was a weird, mostly forgettable season with three pivotal moments: The double-overtime win over Michigan State where Iowa completed five passes for 53 yards and won, the Western Michigan game (we won't discuss that further today), and this game: The spiritual successor to 6-4.
Iowa entered this game 2-4 on the season, with close losses to Iowa State and Wisconsin giving way to blowout defeats against Indiana and Penn State. Following the 2006 meltdown, it had started to feel like everything about Ferentz's tenure was going backwards.
Enter Ron Zook, who Kirk Ferentz clearly enjoyed beating. His Illini were No. 19 in the polls entering a rainy October morning in Iowa City after a stunning win over Wisconsin. However, he was still Ron Zook.
Iowa kept stalling out at midfield through the first half, but its defense held up against Juice Williams and Rashard Mendenhall, and the game was tied at 3 at the half. Illinois went ahead 6-3 on another field goal in the third quarter, and then Ron Zook remembered he was Ron Zook.
Iowa was driving, and converted a 4th and inches with a quarterback sneak. But a tunnel screen went nowhere on the following third down, and the Hawkeyes were facing 4th & 3 from the 15 just as soon as Zook declined an illegal formation penalty. Jake Christiansen ran off the field to make way for the field goal unit.
And then Zook accepted the penalty. I still have no idea why. Newly reborn, Iowa went for the jugular. Christiansen found Brandon Myers on a slant pattern for six, and suddenly Iowa was winning 10-6.
Iowa got the ball back on a Juice Williams fumble, but the drive stalled at midfield, leaving the Hawkeyes facing a 4th & 4, except there was a holding flag, and Zook did it again. He accepted the penalty, and Iowa completed a 29-yard pass for a first down. That enabled the Hawkeyes to run down even more clock, but the Hawkeyes fumbled it back to Illinois deep in Illini territory.
Zook changed quarterbacks for some reason, and Eddie McGee completed an 82-yard bomb for what looked like the go-ahead score...except an Illinois receiver was covered up, leading to an ineligible man downfield penalty that brought it back. And we cackled with glee at the Zook of it all. Illinois still had the ball, and drove to the Iowa 12 yard line, but a McGee pass over the middle was intercepted by Brett Greenwood, and that was that.
Zook spent four more years with the Illini, but Iowa lost in Champaign the next year and Illinois cycled off the schedule for the remainder of his tenure. This was the last time Kirk Ferentz beat Ron Zook. That seems fitting.
18. No. 23 Iowa 30, No. 9 Michigan 27
October 4, 2003
Iowa came into this one off a brutal loss at Michigan State, an early-season bubble created by four straight wins burst. While Michigan already had a loss of its own, it didn't feel like the best time for a Top 10 Wolverines squad to roll into Iowa City. And when the game started with three consecutive three-and-outs for Ferentz's offense (and two touchdowns for Michigan's), there were some fans leaving in the hopes that their tailgate grills would still be warm.
Iowa finally said "screw it" and let Nathan Chandler, the biggest quarterback in Division I football that year, do whatever he wanted. And Chandler managed to do just about whatever he wanted for the next 50 minutes. He ran a ridiculous bootleg in for a touchdown late in the first. After three field goals -- one for Iowa, two for Michigan -- Razor Ramon Ochoa returned a punt back to the Michigan 20, and Chandler hit Calvin Davis for a touchdown with seconds to go before halftime. It was a three-point deficit, and all the momentum was with Iowa.
In the second half, the whole game flipped. Michigan was using a cro-magnon version of the spread punt/rugby punt game, and they had no idea what they were doing. Iowa was on the verge of getting two punts in the first half, and finally got through in the second. And on short fields, Nate Chandler unleashed hell. Two scoring drives ended in Nate Keading field goals, and Iowa's lead went to double digits when Chandler connected with Ochoa on the best touchdown throw I've ever seen an Iowa quarterback make. Michigan got a late touchdown and drove across midfield for what could have been the game-winning score, but Iowa's defense held up.
That throw by Chandler. My God, that throw by Chandler. It was that throw that I'll never forget about this one, the first Iowa home win over Michigan since the 1985 Game of the Century.
Well, that throw and the spread punt. That thing was so bad that Iowa refused to use it for 14 years after that game. Holy hell what a disaster.
17. Iowa 27, Pitt 24
September 19, 2015
Sure, it's The Kick, and the aftermath of The Kick. It's not every day you see any team make a 57-yard game-winning field goal. And that was fun for everyone but that poor cheerleader who got ran over by the team.
But the 2015 Pitt game was more than just the Marshall Koehn kick. It was C.J. Beathard following up his solid performance against Iowa State with even more yardage, more completions, and more gutsy conversions on his feet. It was the first time that Desmond King really looked like THAT Desmond King against a truly fearsome opposing receiver, intercepting two passes and defending Tyler Boyd about as well as could be asked. And it was the first bit of magic in what turned out to be a magical season, as improbable a run as we've ever seen at Iowa, Ferentz or no. The 2015 team didn't have the offensive dominance of 2002 or the defensive dominance of 2009. It just had stuff like this, over and over and over again.
It was a truly great kick to end a truly great game, but more than that, it was a sign of what was to come.
16. Iowa 31, Pitt 27
September 17, 2011
We were just two years removed from the longest winning streak in program history, eleven months removed from Bielema's fake punt, and seven days removed from the Steele Jantz Game when Pitt was up 21 on Iowa late in the third quarter. It was over. All of it was over. Iowa was about to suffer a second non-conference loss before fall had officially began, the players looked utterly listless and demotivated, and the offense once again had morphed into a three-and-out machine.
Eighteen minutes later, we were dancing in the streets. Which obviously begs the question: What the hell happened?
Iowa's offense was truly disastrous that day, my friends. For three quarters, it didn't run at all. And the defense, which had attempted to prop up the entire enterprise through the first half, finally ran out of options as Pitt dropped back-to-back third-quarter touchdowns on the Hawkeyes.
Finally, Iowa threw its collective hands in the air and said, "Screw this, we're going deep." The next 18 minutes were a thing we hadn't seen before, and I don't think we've seen since: Iowa in a dedicated no-huddle four-wide set, with James Vandenberg just throwing it as far as he could on most downs. Vandenberg ran in the first score and threw the next three, with all of those passing scores coming in an eight-minute window between the 10-minute mark and two-minute mark of the fourth quarter.
When the smoke cleared, Vandenberg had completed 31 of his 48 attempts for 399 yards and three scores. Iowa had completed the biggest comeback in school history. And the last year of the Old Ferentz Regime -- his two longtime coordinators would be gone by February, with a full-on shuffle of assistants coming over the next two offseasons -- was kept on the rails for a week longer.
TOMORROW: A whole bunch of Minnesota hilarity, and a trio of the best games against unranked opponents played by Iowa in this millennium or any other.