IOWA CITY – The catch in his throat went to the place that has kept him sane during his days as Iowa’s football coach. His eyes watered, he took a silent second to collect his thoughts, and then he talked about his players.
Say anything you want about unsigned $500,000 contracts, about losing streaks and empty aluminum bleachers, when Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz cleared his throat and gulped to keep the tears back, he went to the place that keeps football coaches from madness.
He didn’t wave a finger, he barely cracked a smile. He talked about his players.
“People don’t realize what these kids put in,” Ferentz said in a gravelly voice that belied his 45 years. “The thing we see is the way they come to work. The spirit, the resiliency, that’s what makes it worthwhile, that’s what makes it worthwhile.”
End of interview. End of losing streak, plural.
Kevin Kasper broke a wide receiver screen 43 yards for a fourth-quarter touchdown and the Hawkeyes’ defense made it stand, clinching a 21-16 victory Saturday over Michigan State at Kinnick Stadium.
And now the paragraph that you all have hated since last year’s loss at Michigan State is deleted. The Hawkeyes (1-5, 1-1 Big Ten) no longer have a school-record 13-game losing streak, no longer have a school-record 14-game Big Ten losing streak, no longer have the nation’s second-longest active losing streak.
If there can be such a thing as a celebratory deletion, have at it.
The Hawkeyes throng that plowed the field after Ryan Van Dyke’s last-gasp pass hit the Kinnick turf certainly would be happy to try.
“I think we got to the point where we couldn’t lose again,” said defensive end Aaron Kampman, who intercepted a pass and blocked a field goal. “I think our football family had finally had enough. I think we all can breathe now.”
Ferentz could live until he’s 100, the gameball his seniors handed him in the lockerroom after the game will forever be a pristine memory of the day everything finally worked.
The defense defended. Well, when T.J. Duckett wasn’t rumbling, it did. The offense moved the ball. When it had its back sewed to the wall, yeah, it did. The special teams was stellar, from Kahlil Hill’s 90-yard kick return that pulled the Hawkeyes from the abyss to the two blocked kicks.
“There were some plays out there that weren’t so pretty, what have you,” Ferentz said. “The whole thing’s the Mona Lisa as far as I’m concerned. That was a Picasso.”
Arguing matters of taste is a losing proposition.
But perhaps Iowa isn’t fighting for life if fullback Jeremy Allen doesn’t treat the football like lava with Iowa marching for a two-touchdown lead late in the first quarter. And maybe the Hawkeyes don’t need two defibrillating defensive stands in the final two minutes if Hill doesn’t lose a punt in the wind, allowing Craig Jarrett’s first-quarter punt to supersize into a 68-yard that pinned Iowa at its 8-yard line.
That left the Spartans (3-2, 0-2 Big Ten) with just 51 yards to tie the game. Duckett got 50 of that on the first carry. Van Dyke hit tight end Ivory McCoy from 2 yards, but Iowa defensive tackle Jerry Montgomery blocked the extra-point kick to preserve the lead.
The Spartans walk away with a defeat, but Duckett, a 6-foot-2, 251-pound sophomore, walks away with respect, 248 rushing yards and a touchdown.
“I think he got heavier as the game went on,” said
linebacker LeVar Woods, who stopped one of MSU’s last-minute drives with an interception off a pass Montgomery tipped.
“He’s just a big dude. You try to hit him low. You
can’t do anything with him high.”
Duckett led the Spartans to 286 rushing yards, 201 more than Iowa’s 85. The Spartans gained 466 yards to Iowa’s 231.
Those numbers scream Iowa defeat, but another loss wasn’t a whisper much less a scream.
“Offensively, I think we had pretty good numbers,”
first-year Michigan State coach Bobby Williams said. “But we didn’t get the win, so those numbers don’t mean
THE HAWKEYES TOOK a 7-0 lead on the game’s opening drive, a wonderful run-pass mix straight out of an offensive
coordinator’s daydream. Freshman quarterback Jon Beutjer
completed 6 of 7 passes for 41 yards.
Running back Ladell Betts gained 20 yards on six carries. Betts scored on a 5-yard run, just Iowa’s second rushing TD this season.
But that was it for Iowa’s offense. The Hawkeyes gained 75
yards on that drive and went incognito while the Spartans scored 16 straight points to take a 16-7 lead on Duckett’s 31-yard run with one minute, 22 seconds left in the third quarter.
“No, it wasn’t pretty,” said Beutjer, who completed
17 of 25 for 146 yards, one TD and no interceptions. “But do you think anybody is going to remember that?”
For memorable, you only need to fast forward 20 seconds from Duckett’s run. Fast forward and enjoy the stop and start, herky and jerky, doe-see-doe of Hill’s 90-yard kickoff return.
Hill made like a mad bat, shuffling his way down field, checking here and there for open space before finding it after Robbertto Rickard’s pancake block on the last Spartan standing.
“You see color and you move away from the color,” said
Hill, whose return was the fourth of his career. “I try to
work on moving sideways but up at the same time. Move sideways, but keep moving forward. I know how crazy that sounds, but it worked today.”
With Duckett on the sidelines nursing a sore ankle, the Spartans marched to Iowa’s 6, where kicker David Schaefer lined up for a 24-yard field goal. He kicked into Kampman’s arm, Woods recovered and the Hawkeyes had hope.
OF COURSE, TO that point Iowa’s offense produced just 72 yards between the opening drive and the game’s final 6:48, so hope was relative.
Yet, the Hawkeyes converted three third downs before offensive coordinator Ken O’Keefe called wide receiver screen to Kasper, a play that worked once all season, and that was just two plays earlier.
“Yeah, that one has been a tough one for us,” said
Kasper, who caught just one pass for 9 yards going into the last drive. “Sometimes when I hear that play, there’s doubts. Today, it was perfect.”
It wasn’t perfect. It was Picasso.
It will look like a masterpiece, just like the gameball on