PREVIOUSLY ON THIS EDITION OF 20 FOR 20:
Five to go. Let's do this.
5. No. 11 Iowa 30, No. 12 LSU 25
January 1, 2005
Even if this game didn't finish the way it did, it would be a pantheon game. Even if it hadn't ended the way it did, Iowa would have gone toe-to-toe with the defending national champions, a team featuring a future No. 1 pick at quarterback, a future NFL halfback, a whole bunch of pros in its defense, and the soon-to-be greatest coach in college football. Even if it hadn't ended the way that it did, we would place it in the short list of truly excruciating near-misses, right there with 2010 Ohio State, 2017 Penn State, and 2015 Michigan State. Even if it hadn't ended the way that it did, countless barstool arguments over the last thirteen years would end with a rundown of LSU's final drive, a dispute over Ferentz's clock management, and a question of what might have been.
Of course, it ended the way it did.
It's the greatest finish in the history of Iowa football, and I don't think it's even close. It was so great that Warren Holloway, an afterthought wideout who recorded one-sixth of his career receiving yards in that one play, is a program legend thirteen years later. It was so great that it totally nullified yet another Ferentz late-game clock management meltdown. It's the best. It might always be the best.
What we didn't know at the time but became obvious over the next few years is that Tate to Holloway was the last act of the greatest run of football in the history of the program, a three-year run where Kirk Ferentz could put me in at quarterback, build a halfback out paper mache and chicken wire, and win ten games and a bowl. For six years, Iowa's expectations were nil and its performances blew past them. For the next four, Iowa could never catch where its fans believed it should be. Everything turned on this game, and on this finish. And damn, what a finish.
4. Iowa 14, No. 2 Michigan 13
November 12, 2016
“‘So, how does their offense look?’” Beathard asked Jewell.
“‘They’re offense is good, but ...’” Beathard said, “but Josey told me, ‘We’re ready to go. I’ve been feeling it all week.’
“He said, ‘Give us 14 points and we’ll win the game.’”
Norm Parker had been gone from the Iowa football program for five seasons when Iowa faced No. 2 Michigan in November 2016. As we'll see in the next game, his defensive philosophy was still alive in Kinnick Stadium that night.
Michigan entered this contest ranked second in the country and undefeated. The Wolverines had beaten a decent Maryland squad by 56 the week before, and no unranked team had stayed within a touchdown of Michigan all year. Meanwhile, Iowa was fresh off a 27-point loss at Penn State and facing its third consecutive ranked opponent. On top of it all, Kirk Ferentz was 0-4 in games against teams ranked first or second. The Wolverines were 24-point favorites, and that felt a bit light.
But what Jewell knew when he asked Beathard for 14 points was the same thing that Pat Angerer probably knew as Iowa headed into the 2010 Orange Bowl as an underdog: That Michigan's offense, built on thirty-plus running play variations and play action passing, could be contained if Iowa remained disciplined and patient. Iowa would concede yards, but not in chunks. Iowa would concede points, but not in sixes.
There were a series of weird moments in the first half, none more weird than the Ron Coluzzi somersault that led to Devin Bush's ejection. Michigan got their only touchdown early in the second quarter, going up 10-0, but a Coluzzi punt was downed at the Michigan one yard line, and Jaleel Johnson blew up a second-down run play to record a safety. Just like that, Iowa's offense only needed to find twelve.
Back in 2002, it took Iowa about 25 minutes to figure out that Michigan couldn't stop Jermelle Lewis. Fourteen years later, it took Iowa about 25 minutes to figure out that Michigan couldn't stop Akrum Wadley, and they started feeding the junior halfback the ball with the sort of variety reserved for Harbaugh's running attack. Wadley singlehandedly produced Iowa's only touchdown in the drive following the safety, a series of runs and quasi-screens that Akrum used to create wiggle room, and capped with a catch on fourth and goal. It was 10-8 at the half, and like with so many Ferentz upsets, Iowa had the momentum.
Another Wadley-heavy series early in the third quarter led to a Keith Duncan field goal that gave Iowa its first lead. Michigan retook the lead on a 51-yard attempt early in the fourth quarter, and the war of attrition began in earnest. Iowa's defense forced quarterback Wilton Speight into throwing deep and often, and it worked. Michigan receivers dropped a series of passes, and Speight threw a key interception in the fourth. Iowa forced a punt from deep in Michigan territory with 96 seconds left, and Iowa would need a field goal to win. Echoes of 1985 reverberated through Kinnick.
A low punt and a facemask penalty put Iowa on the edge of field goal range before Beathard had taken a snap. Iowa needed ten, and it went to Wadley on the screen to get it. A Beathard sneak -- the sort of play we'd seen from him in early 2015, pre-injury, but almost never since -- picked up another ten yards, and suddenly, Iowa was in chip shot territory. We all know what happened from there: Keith Duncan added his name to the list of Iowa kickers made legend by a single kick.
Ferentz is fond of saying that Iowa will do what it does, often to the frustration of...well, me. But in one of the most unlikely wins of his twenty-year tenure, he followed his formula. Iowa's defense would not let Michigan get deep, the way Norm Parker taught it. Iowa's defense would trade yards for time, the way Norm wanted it. And in the final act, Iowa would get to a number that Josey Jewell requested and Norm would have liked: They gave us 14.
3. No. 10 Iowa 24, No. 9 Georgia Tech 14
January 5, 2010
Option football is assignment football. And if you give Norm Parker a month to teach it, he'll teach you a doctorate-level class on assignment football. That's the story of Iowa's Orange Bowl win, the only BCS-level bowl win, and most nationally significant victory, on Ferentz's resume.
Georgia Tech's option offense was supposed to be too much for Iowa's defense. The Yellow Jackets had torn up the ACC with it, including a 39-point performance against Clemson in the conference's championship game one month earlier. But Clemson wasn't coached by Norm.
Once it was obvious that Iowa had Georgia Tech scouted down to granular detail, the result was inevitable. And yes, there was the infamous "Love it or Leave it" postgame interview, and the contract extension, and everything that flowed from this game into the 2010 season. But more than anything else, this was Norm's last game before health problems limited his involvement with the team over the next two years, and it was his masterwork.
2. Iowa 55, No. 6 Ohio State 24
November 4, 2017
It's been five months, and I still don't have an explanation for this game. Sure, it had all the hallmarks of an Iowa upset: An early surprise score, this time through Amani Hooker's Pick Six. A score before the half to gain some momentum. A couple of crucial turnovers. And the idea of Iowa's defense holding a top offense to 24 points isn't anything new. You can look through this list and find plenty of examples of that. That's what Iowa does.
What Iowa doesn't do is score 55 points on one of the nation's best defenses, a defense built around a front four full of top recruits and NFL prospects. Iowa ran an offense that wasn't entirely different from what it usually has -- they used motion to disrupt OSU pre-snap, and the passing game was revamped slightly -- but Ohio State's defense looked like it had never watched a second of film. And maybe they hadn't.
Maybe a myopic Iowa fan predicted a win. Possibly, given Iowa's reputation for late games at Kinnick, you could have called for a 16-14 Iowa win on a last-second field goal attempt. But nobody could have possibly predicted this, the single most inexplicable win of Ferentz's tenure. So why isn't it first on this list? Because, as absurd as Iowa's 31-point win over No. 6 Ohio State was, Iowa didn't capitalize on it. The chariot turned back to a pumpkin seven days later, and seven days after that. You can't say that about the last game on this list, which is why it's the last game on the list.
1. Iowa 24, No. 3 Penn State 23
November 8, 2008
Ten years later, it's almost impossible to understate how important Iowa's completely improbable 2008 win over Penn State was. On November 7, 2008, Iowa was 5-4 on the season, 2-3 in the Big Ten, and staring down the barrel of a 3-5 conference record and no bowl trip for the second consecutive year. In the nearly four years since his peak had ended, Ferentz's teams had gone 24-22 overall and 15-16 in the conference. The Hawkeyes had lost two games to Iowa State and three games to Northwestern, both considered punching bags a decade earlier. The previous Saturday, the Hawkeyes had lost on a last-minute field goal against an Illinois team coached by Ron Zook. The previous offseason had been consumed with scandal following the arrest of two football players on charges of sexual assault. Just weeks before the season began, it was not out of the question that the mishandling of that investigation could take down Ferentz, new athletic director Gary Barta and school president Sally Mason. And, oh, by the way, Ferentz was now working for an athletic director who didn't hire him and due for an extension if he was going to remain at Iowa.
None of you need a recap of what happened here, as the template has been imprinted on our souls. It's the same template Iowa used to beat Michigan eight years later, the same template that Iowa used against Penn State last September and against Wisconsin and Michigan State two years prior to that. On November 8, Iowa got an early score, it got defensive containment on Penn State's offense, and it got a couple of timely turnovers.
On November 7, all of those things worked in theory. On November 8, they worked in application. On November 9, it was a new dawn for Iowa football. The Hawkeyes would go more than a year without losing a game following Daniel Murray's field goal, the program's all-time longest winning streak. Shonn Greene won the Doak Walker Award that day. Ricky Stanzi won the quarterback job that day. And while he didn't get the paperwork until after the Orange Bowl fourteen months later, Ferentz won his comically huge contract extension that day.
If you want to play a game of "what if?" on Iowa football, play out that scenario: Iowa loses to Penn State on November 8 and sputters to a 6-6 finish by splitting the last two games. If there was a bowl trip, it would likely have been to the Champs Sports Bowl, a far cry from where the Hawkeyes ended up. After a fourth season of mediocrity, does Barta pull the trigger on any extension of Ferentz? Is Kirk even here after the 2009 season if Iowa doesn't win on November 8, 2008?
The 2008 Penn State win provided us with a new template, not just for how to beat a top five opponent, but for how to measure expectations. That recalibration, away from 2002-04 as a standard and toward something more manageable for a program of Iowa's size and stature, is what has kept Ferentz employed and in general good standing with the fans. We found a new normal, where Daniel Murray's field goal -- or Keith Duncan's field goal eight years later, or Akrum Wadley's touchdown run against these same Nittany Lions last fall -- are the high we seek. And where Iowa built its template for how to win against a better team, Iowa fans built their template for how to measure the whole endeavor.