Iowa Charges To The End, And Leaves With An Impressive Show

Iowa players hoist the Holiday Bowl after Friday's 49-24 win over USC. (Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports)

John Bohnenkamp

SAN DIEGO — Four wins to get to 10.

Iowa’s Big Ten West Division hopes had disappeared in a two-point loss to Wisconsin in early November. Mathematically, there was still a path to a crown, but it was such a long shot the Hawkeyes knew that other goals were easier to attain.

Like, say, winning the rest of the season. Beat Minnesota and Illinois at home, win at Nebraska on the road, and then get a bowl victory.

Get four wins, and that’s a 10-win year.

And so, the Hawkeyes won.

They controlled a top-10 Minnesota team under the lights of Kinnick Stadium, did what needed to be done against Illinois, then got a last-second field goal to win at Nebraska.

The fourth win, the last one, was their finest, a 49-24 victory over USC in Friday’s Holiday Bowl.

Iowa, ranked 16th in the final College Football Playoff poll, finished 10-3, only the sixth season of 10 or more wins since 1999, when Kirk Ferentz took over as head coach.

“Ten wins,” offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs said, “puts us in pretty elite company in Iowa football history.”

Quarterback Nate Stanley remembered that crushing 24-22 loss at Wisconsin, when he was stopped inches from a two-point conversion that would have tied the game in the fourth quarter.

“Our goal of a Big Ten championship was taken,” said Stanley, who became only the second quarterback in Iowa history to win three bowl games. “We didn't play well enough in a couple games to put ourselves in that position. When we knew that goal was off the table, we set our sights on a new goal. Everybody bought in. Everybody was bought in from January. Every single person bought into what we wanted to do. Every single one of those 19 seniors showed a great example of what to do and how to get there. Everybody responded.

“It's just extremely special to reap the harvest, really.”

This game produced a bumper crop of touchdowns from so many different ways.

Two wide receivers — Tyrone Tracy and Ihmir Smith-Marsette — had touchdown runs. Smith-Marsette caught one touchdown pass, had a kickoff return for another score, and nearly threw a touchdown pass. Tyler Goodson had a touchdown run. Brandon Smith, who had played just one play in Iowa’s last five regular-season games after suffering a severe ankle injury, caught a touchdown pass. Linebacker Nick Niemann provided the final score with a 25-yard interception return for a fourth-quarter touchdown.

Iowa had touchdown drives of 75, 72 and 90 yards. The three possessions consisted of 39 plays that took 22 minutes, 3 seconds off the clock.

“The biggest thing for us tonight, it was a complete team victor,” Ferentz said. “It was offense, special teams, defense.

“That's just good football.”

It was the Hawkeyes’ highest point total of the season, the most since they scored 48 in a win over Middle Tennessee State on Sept. 28.

There was power, and speed. And the Trojans (8-5) couldn’t match it after getting to within 28-24 early in the third quarter.

“They played better than us, that was a simple fact,” USC coach Clay Helton said.

USC seemed to have life after that third-quarter score, a 2-yard run by Stephen Carr. Helton called for an onside kick, and the Trojans recovered.

“I'll be honest with you, I thought we put ourselves right in that position after the onside kick,” Helton said.

The Hawkeyes, stunned with the 4-play, 75-yard touchdown drive of the Trojans to start the half, found themselves back out on the field on defense.

“Sudden change,” is what the Hawkeyes call it.

“We just got on to the bench, talking about the last drive,” defensive end A.J. Epenesa said. “Like you said, bam, we're back on the field. We practice for situations like that. We were prepared for it.”

“We just took it like a turnover from the offense,” safety Geno Stone said. “We had to go out there and put out the fire. That’s our mentality.”

Two plays into the possession, quarterback Kedon Slovis, who had completed 22-of-30 passes for 260 yards and two touchdowns, went out of the game with an elbow injury on the second play after the kick recovery. His right throwing arm was wrenched on a hit by Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa, and what was originally ruled an incomplete pass was called a fumble, but the Trojans were able to recover the ball.

Slovis’ night had been extinguished, and when backup Matt Fink was sacked two plays later on third down, the USC flame had faded.

Iowa started at its own 10 after punt returner Max Cooper lost the ball while trying to make a fair catch, but Cooper was able to make the recovery on the play.

The Hawkeyes then went on a 14-play, 90-yard drive that included three consecutive quarterback sneaks by Stanley inside the Trojans’ 10-yard line. Goodson then scored, Iowa led 35-24, and the 10th win was close.

USC outgained the Hawkeyes, 356-328, but Iowa made more use of its time with the ball, holding almost a seven-minute edge in time of possession.

The Hawkeyes, who had struggled inside the opponents’ 20-yard line almost all season, were 4-for-4 on red-zone possessions in this game. All four were touchdowns.

As Stanley said, it was a harvest.

Ten wins, Ferentz said, was a nice number.

“It's something we put out there for our team, being ranked is a big thing, too,” he said. “Biggest thing, when it all came down to it, was encourage our guys to compete, let's go out and compete, try to enjoy the night. Last time together there. There are no tomorrows on this one. It's all about the 2019 season.

“Winning 10 games is hard. Winning any game is hard in college football.”

This had been a difficult month for Ferentz and the program. Former athletics director Bump Elliott died early in December, and former coach Hayden Fry, who had hired Ferentz as an assistant in 1981, died two weeks ago.

Ferentz wore a black-and-gold pin that said, “Hayden,” on it.

The post-game celebration in the locker room featured the “Hokey Pokey,” the dance Fry’s teams did after big wins.

“We felt, to honor him, we had to do that,” Stanley said.

“I thought we were going to have the seniors do the fight song, then you hear, ‘Put your right foot in, put your left…,” Smith-Marsette said. “Like Nate said, it's a tradition. Special being able to have everybody in the locker room contribute to it. It's a special thing.”

Wirfs was behind Ferentz after the dance was complete.

“From what I heard in Coach Ferentz’s voice, I think he was crying,” Wirfs said. “I think he was emotional. And he has every right to be.”

The 10th win, the last win, was the perfect finale to the season.

“Yeah, it's definitely special just being able to come out here, execute at a high level, play a brand-name team, play the way we did, put the points up the way we did,” Smith-Marsette said.

“There's no downside to winning a game, no downside to that,” Ferentz said. “It's great.”

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