In case you haven't heard, the Iowa-Mississippi State game in this year's Outback Bowl (Tuesday, January 1, 11 AM CT, ESPN2) is expected to be a hard-hitting, low-scoring affair. The Vegas over-under for the game is just 42.5 and both teams rank in or around the Top 10 nationally in scoring defense, total defense, rushing defense, and in fewest long plays from scrimmage allowed.
In other words, this game is expected to be a rock fight. So what makes a game a "rock fight"? There's no precise definition, but in general it should involve a lot of defense, some hard-hitting action, and offenses that are ineffective, if not outright inept. In honor of the exceedingly likely rock fight to come on Tuesday -- as well as in honor of the Cal-TCU Cheez-It Bowl on Wednesday night, which staked an impressive claim to being the rock fightiest game of the bowl season -- let's take a look back at some of the most memorable rock fights of Kirk Ferentz's two decades in charge at Iowa.
15) 2012: Iowa 18, NIU 17
NIU 225 total yards (4.33 YPP), 54 passing, 171 rushing
IOWA 270 total yards (3.29 YPP), 129 passing, 141 rushing
In hindsight, it turns out that this game was a very prophetic (and unsettling) vision of what was to come for the Iowa offense under Greg Davis. (That's not entirely fair, as the Davis-directed offenses of 2014 and 2015 put up decent numbers... BUT STILL.) Iowa ran 82 plays (!) for a grand total of 270 yards in this game. They averaged a meager 2.8 yards per rush and a sickly 3.9 yards per pass. Neither of Iowa's two games against NIU at Soldier Field were particularly aesthetically pleasing, but the 2012 game was some really gross football.
14) 2013: Iowa 17, Northwestern 10 (OT)
NW 330 total yards (5.0 YPP), 104 passing, 226 rushing
IOWA 307 total yards (4.51 YPP), 169 passing, 138 rushing
2017 Northwestern 17, Iowa 10 (OT)
NW 339 total yards (4.13 YPP), 192 passing, 147 rushing
IOWA 312 total yards (4.73 YPP), 223 passing, 89 rushing
We're just gonna lump these together because, honestly, I'm not at all convinced that Iowa and Northwestern didn't play the exact same damn game four years apart. Both games featured small amounts of offensive production and were tied 10-10 heading into overtime. Iowa prevailed in 2013 thanks to a touchdown pass from Jake Rudock to C.J. Fiedorowicz, while Northwestern turned the tables in 2017 with a Clayton Thorson TD run in OT that proved to be the game-winner when Noah Fant dropped a fourth down pass in Iowa's half of overtime. Iowa and Northwestern have played a whole lot of rock fight-y games over the years, especially since Pat Fitzgerald took over in 2006.
13) 2012: Iowa 19, MSU 16 (2OT)
MSU 328 total yards (4.69 YPP), 179 passing, 149 rushing
IOWA 257 total yards (3.67 YPP), 134 passing, 123 rushing
aka, the last game Iowa managed to win in 2012. While those Iowa-Northwestern OT games mentioned above were 10-10 heading into OT, this game was a blistering 13-13 heading into the extra sessions. The fact that Iowa and Michigan State managed to play 60 minutes plus two overtime periods and neither team could hit 20 points is some peak #B1GRockFight shit. Also: Iowa won a game where they mustered just 257 yards in 60 minutes plus two overtimes because sometimes Kirk Ferentz really is a wizard. Iowa trailed 13-3 heading into the fourth quarter in this one, before scoring 10 straight points in overtime, the last coming on a Mark Weisman TD run with under a minute to go. This game even featured Iowa dancing on the sidelines for the first (and probably last) time ever. Virtually nothing about this game makes any sense.
12) 2006: #14 Iowa 20, Syracuse 13 (2OT)
Syracuse 280 total yards (3.41 YPP), 210 passing, 70 rushing
IOWA 351 total yards (5.09 YPP), 202 passing, 149 rushing
Amazingly, that 2012 Iowa-MSU game wasn't the only ultra-low scoring 2OT game of the KF Era. Iowa also played this snoozer against Syracuse, which was 10-10 after regulation. Of course, this game is most famous for being the site of The Stand, Iowa's improbably long goal-line stand against Syracuse in the second overtime that secured the victory. That was indeed an impressive defensive accomplishment. The only reason this game even went to overtime, though, was because fill-in QB Jason Manson threw four interceptions, three of them in Cuse territory. This was an ugly, stupid game, but the ending really was pretty great.
11) 2012: #14 Nebraska 13, Iowa 7
NEB 269 total yards (4.01 YPP), 63 passing, 206 rushing
IOWA 200 total yards (3.17 YPP), 92 passing, 108 rushing
Kinnick Stadium turned into a wind tunnel for this game, as it seems to do for a game every few seasons. Consequently, Iowa's first home game against Nebraska in conference play turned into a low-scoring, defensive slog with barely any passing to be found. Iowa's offense was very, very bad in 2012, but this was probably the nadir, with the fewest yards and lowest yards per play average of the season.
10) 2018: Iowa 13, ISU 3
ISU 188 total yards (3.36 YPP), 169 passing, 19 rushing
IOWA 271 total yards (4.23 YPP), 166 passing, 105 rushing
This game from earlier this season cracks the list because it felt like three hours of two teams just ramming into a wall repeatedly. Iowa's lone touchdown came off a perfect pass and catch from Nate Stanley to Brandon Smith, which was without a doubt the best offensive highlight of the game (it was just about the only offensive highlight of the game). Iowa holding David Montgomery and the ISU rushing game to 19 yards was damn impressive, though, and if you like sound, hard-hitting defensive football, you might have liked this game quite a bit.
9) 2007: Iowa 10, #18 Illinois 6
ILL 287 total yards (5.2 YPP), 152 passing, 137 rushing
IOWA 323 total yards (4.49 YPP), 203 passing, 141 rushing
This game was the highlight of Iowa's 2007 season. It featured an inspired effort by Iowa's defense (they held Illinois to 3.9 yards per carry and limited Rashard Mendenhall to 67 yards on 15 carries). Of course, Iowa's own offense wasn't able to do much (Iowa averaged just 3.0 yards per carry on the ground themselves), but Jake Christensen avoided any interceptions (though he did lose a fumble late in the game when Iowa had a chance to extend their narrow lead). This game wasn't all that ugly in a lot of ways; it was just an extreme version of the typical defense-heavy, slow-tempo game that Iowa often plays, at least in terms of the scoreboard.
8) 2015: Iowa 10, Wisconsin 6
WIS 320 total yards (4.44 YPP), 234 passing, 86 rushing
IOWA 223 total yards (3.66 YPP), 77 passing, 146 rushing
Iowa consolidated all of their scoring in this game to the second quarter, grabbing a C.J. Beathard TD pass to George Kittle and a Marshall Koehn field goal in the final three minutes of the quarter. The offense didn't do a lot all game against the Badgers in this one -- see: 223 yards total and just 3.66 yards per play -- but they did just enough, especially with the defense able to hold Wisconsin to just six points, thanks to four turnovers. There have been plenty of games where Iowa tries to sit on a lead and hope to ride its defense and some luck to a win (too many games like that, if we're being honest), but when it works you can get a victory like this one.
7) 2015: #5 MSU 16, #4 Iowa 13 (B1G title game)
MSU 365 total yards (4.62 YPP), 191 passing, 174 rushing
IOWA 268 total yards (5.25 YPP), 216 passing, 52 rushing
Now this game? This game was a dang rock fight. Iowa's games with Michigan State have tended to be brutal, hard-hitting, low-scoring affairs (particularly since Mark Dantonio took over in East Lansing) and this game was maybe the best of all of 'em -- at the very least, it definitely had the biggest stakes, given that it was in the Big Ten Championship Game with a spot in the College Football Playoff on the line. This game was 6-3 Iowa at halftime and 9-6 Michigan State after three quarters; the only touchdowns of the game came in the fourth quarter, one an 85-yard touchdown bomb (that amounted to almost one-third of Iowa's total offense for the game) from C.J. Beathard to Tevaun Smith that is one of the most memorable Iowa plays of the last 30 years and the other a gut-wrenching L.J. Scott TD run that came at the end of a 22-play (!), 9-minute drive that won the game for the Spartans. This game was proof positive that even a rock fight can be art in the right circumstances.
6) 2009: Iowa 15, MSU 13
MSU 307 total yards (4.95 YPP), 225 passing, 85 rushing
IOWA 276 total yards (4.18 YPP), 138 passing, 138 rushing
If by "rock fight" you mean "hard-hitting football," then this game is probably Exhibit A, B, and C of that concept. I'm not sure I've ever seen a more hard-hitting game of football involving Iowa than this one. There were more than a few times when it felt less like football and more like thinly-veiled assault and battery on a football field. This was another game that featured instantly memorable late-game heroics, with Michigan State's late game hook-and-ladder (that set up their go-ahead score) being eclipsed by Iowa's fourth-and-goal walk-off touchdown (7 got 6). These Iowa-MSU games are proof positive that "rock fight" doesn't have to be a pejorative, because while the '09 and '15 Iowa-MSU games may have lacked points, they didn't lack drama, excitement, or plenty of memorable action.
5) 2012: ISU 9, Iowa 6
ISU 348 total yards (4.52 YPP), 241 passing, 107 rushing
IOWA 304 total yards (4.34 YPP), 236 passing, 68 rushing
Iowa State scored nine total points and turned the ball over four times... and still won. Iowa State scored on two of their first three possessions and Iowa scored on their first possession, but this is what happened after that (relatively) quick start: punt, punt, punt, ISU interception, Iowa interception, ISU missed field goal, end of half, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, ISU fumble, Iowa field goal, punt, punt, punt, punt, ISU interception, Iowa turnover on downs, punt, Iowa interception, end of game. Connor Kornbrath punted eight times for 293 yards in this game, which was just 11 yards less than Iowa's offense gained for the entire game. This game was really stupid and really ugly and we should never ever speak of it again. That said, this game also holds some distinction in the rock fight standings because it was one of two Iowa games in the last 20 years in which neither team managed to score at least 10 points (y'all know what the other game was).
4) 2016 Iowa 14, Michigan 13
MICH 201 total yards (3.30 YPP), 103 passing, 98 rushing
IOWA 230 total yards (3.38 YPP), 66 passing, 164 rushing
Remember how I said sometimes a rock fight can be art? Here's another example of that concept in action. These were two of the worst offensive performances I can recall watching in an Iowa game over the last 20 years (although there are worst performances to come on that side of the ball in these rankings), although at least in this case you have to give a lot of credit to the defenses. Michigan had a viciously good defense in 2016 (they were top-two nationally in total defense and scoring defense) and Iowa had a good defense that played incredibly inspired football in this game. Akrum Wadley provided just enough offense for Iowa in this game and Keith Duncan became a folk hero. This was another game that provides evidence for the idea that low-scoring football doesn't necessarily mean badly-played football.
3) 2009: Iowa 12, Minnesota 0
MINN 205 total yards (2.63 YPP), 153 passing, 52 rushing
IOWA 178 total yards (2.97 YPP), 117 passing, 61 rushing
This game seemed less like a standard football contest and more like a dare or a piece of performance art from Kirk Ferentz. As in, "What's the least amount of offense I need to beat this Minnesota football team?" A year after blanking Minnesota 55-0, Iowa blanked them again in 2009, though this shutout was a little bit harder. Minnesota actually outgained Iowa slightly in this game, although 205 yards of offense is nothing to crow about (especially with a yards per play average of 2.63). Minnesota failed because they turned the ball over four times on the Iowa side of the field, including not one, not two, but three turnovers on downs in Iowa territory and a fumble at the Iowa 13-yard line. Iowa played with fire a bit in this one, but ultimately they had the bigger and badder rocks in this fight (thanks to that beastly '09 defense).
2) 2003: Ohio State 19, Iowa 10
OSU 185 total yards (2.89 YPP), 129 passing, 56 rushing
IOWA 219 total yards (3.27 YPP), 153 passing, 66 rushing
By rock fight standards, this game was relatively high-scoring -- 29 total points! In regulation, no less! But it earns its rock fight bona fides because all those points came via special teams. Ohio State returned a punt for a touchdown and blocked a punt for another touchdown, their only two touchdowns of the game. Iowa's lone touchdown came on a fake field goal via a pitch to Nate Kaeding for a rushing score. These teams had to dig deep into their bag of tricks to get on the scoreboard in this game. That's because these were two hellaciously good defenses, as evidenced by those figures up above. Iowa held Ohio State to just 185 yards of offense and a woeful 2.89 yards per play, which is absolutely sensational. Over the last decade, Iowa's defense has held opponents to 2.89 yards per play (or less) just six times: '09 Minnesota, '10 Ball State, '13 Michigan, '14 Purdue, '14 Northwestern, and '15 Northwestern. Alas, it wasn't enough in this game because Iowa's own offense was almost as dreadful as OSU's offense in this game; OSU's special teams advantage made the difference. This was just two very good defenses butting heads and refusing to concede an inch for three hours.
1) 2004: Iowa 6, Penn State 4
PSU 147 total yards (2.58 YPP), 96 passing, 51 rushing
IOWA 168 total yards (2.37 YPP), 126 passing, 42 rushing
I mean... what else could it be, really? This is the archetypal rock fight game. This is one of the lowest scoring games in Division I football over the last 15 years. Its final score -- six to four -- is instantly recognizable shorthand among Iowa fans (and, to their eternal consternation, Penn State fans as well). Neither team cracked 200 yards of offense; hell, only Iowa cracked 150 yards of offense, and they didn't manage that by much. There were no touchdowns in this game and there wasn't much time spent in the red zone. Penn State ran 10 plays in the Iowa red zone and while Iowa ran 17 plays in the PSU red zone, eight of those came on the game's final possession, when Iowa was simply running out the clock. Iowa ran the ball 40 times for 42 yards, while Penn State ran the ball 29 times for 51 yards. Penn State averaged 4.1 yards per pass attempt, while Iowa averaged 3.4 yards per pass attempt. Oh, and there were seven total turnovers in this game, two from Iowa and five from Penn State, including four turnovers. This game deserves a place of honor in the Rock Fight Hall of Fame.
So will Iowa's game with Mississippi State next Tuesday join this illustrious list? We'll find out soon...