If it feels as though the majority of these happened during the stretch run of Iowa's schedule, it's because they did.
Iowa played its best football in November, putting together a 3-1 record (its best since 3-1 in 2008) and enjoying quality victories over Michigan and Nebraska. The Michigan victory flipped the result from a 42-17 debacle in 2012. Iowa's victory at Nebraska was its first over the Huskers since 1981 and first in Lincoln since 1943.
Sure, these were forgettable Michigan and Nebraska teams, but the victories were milestones the Hawkeyes will happily relish and were keys in Iowa's Outback Bowl selection. The Outback could've selected Nebraska (8-4) or Michigan (7-5), but stuck with the results.
“I’m sort of joking when when you talked about the brand of Michigan and the brand of Nebraska,” Iowa athletics director Gary Barta said. “I’ll stand pretty tall on the brand of Iowa. Maybe we’re not as large as the state size and population, but at the end of the day, we talked earlier about proving it on the field.
“When we got to the resume table, we were able to say we beat Michigan and beat Nebraska. They both do have storied histories, but in 2013, the University of Iowa stood tall.”
My picks for Iowa's top 10 plays of the season are heavy on the November. I went with a few subtle plays that are louder when you look back. I think they're all from victories, so, no, the Jake Duzey 85-yarder at Ohio State didn't make it. I know, I know, and that doesn't make it any less of a beautifully executed play.
Let's call it No. 11.
10. RB Mark Weisman rumbles for 11 yards against Nebraska.
Iowa was looking for a 14-0 lead and thought it had it when Weisman bumbled through four Nebraska tacklers and seemed to ram the ball into the end zone. A video review put the ball at the 1 and Weisman finished the drive on the next play.
It was your quintessential Weisman play. By the way, the nasty bruise that showed up on Weisman's shoulder midway through the season? That was a severely strained pectoral muscle. Despite that and foot, elbow and knee injuries, Weisman stayed in gear and is poised to become Iowa's first 1,000-yard rusher (937 yards going into the Outback) since Marcus Coker in 2011.
9. Kevonte Martin-Manley returns two punts for TDs vs. Western Michigan.
It's not everyday you get to reference Nile Kinnick in a story. When you do, you know something very cool happened.
Martin-Manley returned punts 83 and 63 yards for TDs against Western Michigan. Martin-Manley's 184 punt return yards fell 17 short of tying Kinnick’s record of 201 punt return yards in a game (set in 1939). After Martin-Manley, who came into the game with 34 career punt return yards, scored on the 63-yarder to give Iowa a 24-0 lead with 10:46 left in the second quarter, he didn’t get the green light for another return. He knew why.
“I was kind of bitter about that, that I wasn’t able to get it,” Martin-Manley said, of course with a huge smile on his face. “To even be mentioned in that category, I was truly humbled by it.”
8. FAKE PUNT STOPPED!!!
Iowa had an ugly streak of four consecutive fake punts working against them going into the season finale at Nebraska (Eastern Illinois 2010, Wisconsin 2010, NIU and Michigan State this season), so why not?
Down 17-10 with about five minutes left in the third quarter, Nebraska tried a fake punt. It was fourth-and-three from the Cornhuskers 32. Punter Sam Foltz took the snap and broke to the right. Iowa was in its base 4-3 defense. Three Huskers with offensive lineman and defensive linemen numbers tried to block defensive end Drew Ott and linebackers Christian Kirksey and James Morris.
Kirksey closed on Foltz and tackled him for an 8-yard loss. Next play, Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock drilled wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley for a score.
“I’ve heard about that, I remember those plays,” coach Kirk Ferentz said, interrupting a question about fake punts, obviously knowing what was coming. “Thanks for bringing them up. I love reading about them, too.”
7. Defensive tackle Louis Trinca-Pasat whiffs, gets back up and catches Northwestern QB Kain Colter to seal Iowa's 17-10 overtime win.
Trinca-Pasat ended up flat on his belly, staring straight down field into what probably felt like an abyss. Not a good thing against Northwestern and quarterback Kain Colter.
Not good at all.
On fourth-and-8 in overtime, Iowa’s defensive tackles, Trinca-Pasat and Carl Davis, ran a perfect twist. Davis picked both of Northwestern’s inside blockers and Trinca-Pasat spun free and had Colter in reach.
He whiffed and ended up splayed. Colter was free, with Northwestern needing a TD to tie the game.
Trinca-Pasat, a 290-pound junior, took his shot and ended up on his stomach. His shot didn’t stop there. He popped right back up. Defensive end Drew Ott fought through a block and held contain. Trinca-Pasat caught Colter from behind.
“That’s the kind of guy he is,” Davis said. “He won’t quit on the play. He’s just always going. He gives great effort.”
6. Tunnel screen of love.
Iowa wide receiver Damond Powell lined up on the right side. Minnesota cornerback Eric Murray backed up. The Gophers blitzed, rushing six defenders and leaving five at the second level about eight yards off the line of scrimmage.
Iowa QB Jake Rudock threw to Powell, who caught the ball on a tunnel screen and took two steps parallel to the line of scrimmage. Four Iowa offensive linemen ran in front of Powell. Guard Andrew Donnal and tackle Brett Van Sloten sealed off the outside by attacking safety Cedric Thompson. Wide receiver Tevaun Smith blocked Murray to the outside. Guard Conor Boffeli and center Austin Blythe sealed off the inside, leaving a clear lane for Powell.
Minnesota had built slight momentum nearing the end of the first half. The score put Iowa up 17-0 and gave the Hawkeyes clear control of the game.
“We’ve been practicing that,” Powell said. “They play aggressive on the perimeter and they gave us a good look, and we took it and we scored off of it. I was looking for (the safety). I was expecting the safety to be there, but it was clear as day.”
5. Halftime speech worked, like right away.
Iowa fell behind 21-7 against Michigan at halftime on Nov. 23. Halftime, as you might imagine, got a little intense. Offensive line coach Brian Ferentz made some points, tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz recalled. The seniors made some more points. Many points were made and, apparently, received.
“Some guys are yellers and some guys want to hold your hand and everything in between,” linebacker James Morris said.
Three plays into the second half, Rudock wiped off the ugly first with a 55-yard TD pass to sophomore wide receiver Tevaun Smith, who ran a quick slant and kind of one-handed juggled the catch.
“The ball kind of sailed on me,” said Smith, who led Iowa with five catches for 97 yards. “It just kind of got right passed my head. I honestly reached up and there it was. I was hungry for my first touchdown.”
4. B.J. Lowery goes over the center-field wall and steals a home run.
The fourth quarter became an ‘all-or-nothing” proposition for both teams. Rudock scored on a 1-yard sneak with 7:05 left in the fourth to give Iowa a 27-7 lead. But then, Sam Richardson and Quenton Bundrage hooked up for the first of three TD connections to pull ISU within 27-14 with 4:27 left. The 26-yarder was the first blow in the Lowery-Bundrage matchup.
The Cyclones recovered an onside kick and were back in business. This is where the game within the game leaned toward Lowery. Richardson tried to get some air under a seam route to West. Lowery read the throw the whole way, but had taken one step too far toward the line of scrimmage. He was caught in a desperation situation.
“I was going for the pick,” Lowery said. “I make that play sometimes [in practice], the majority of times, I don’t. I actually thought I jumped a little too early, so at that point I just had to adjust."
Lowery was roughed up some in the ISU game. He'd be the first to tell you.
“You’ve just got to keep fighting,” Lowery said. “I know I have my guys supporting me through ups and downs. That’s one thing we do emphasize here is supporting the next, and that was me. Tonight was my night, I had to step up.”
3. LB Christian Kirksey strip, Trinca-Pasat fumble recovery in the fourth quarter at Nebraska.
This game ended up in a celebratory trophy sprint and with the team singing the school fight song in the corner of Memorial Stadium. It also ended 38-17 Hawkeyes, but Iowa's lead was rickety at times.
Nebraska pulled within 24-17 and had first down at its 40 with 10:09 left to play in the game. First down was a handoff to running back Ameer Abdullah, one of the top three running backs in the Big Ten.
Trinca-Pasat got a glove in on the ball. LB Anthony Hitchens spun Abdullah. Kirksey stripped the ball out. Trinca-Pasat recovered. The Hawkeyes scored two plays later and raised their lead to 31-17. Now it was OK to start sniffing around for the Heroes Trophy run.
Kirksey totaled 11 tackles, including three for losses, and added a sack and a quarterback hurry to go with the forced fumble. He earned Big Ten defensive player of the week and the Walter Camp national defensive player of the week.
2. Rudock to Fiedorowicz for the winning points against Northwestern in overtime.
Rudock couldn’t remember if he ended up on his back. He didn’t remember anything in the aftershock.
Rudock remembered the important things about his 8-yard touchdown pass to tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz. He remembered that Northwestern threw on a blitz. He remembered the defense was in a cover zero, with no deep safety. He remembered that he had to get the ball out super fast.
“I don’t think I was on the ground,” the Iowa quarterback said. “I swear I don’t have a concussion, I promise. I’m really good.”
On third-and-7 from the 8, Rudock took a presnap look and saw NU safety Ibraheim Campbell and linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo lurking in the middle of the field. He figured they were coming.
At first, it looked as though Rudock, who finished 19 of 27 for 169 yards, a TD and an interception, threw the ball away. Campbell was right there.
“That was great poise by Jake,” said Fiedorowicz, who called the TD the biggest of his career. “That guy was right in his face.”
Rudock knew he had to throw the ball high enough to give Fiedorowicz a chance to run under it. Campbell was so close he smelled Rudock’s deodorant.
“It all felt like it was in slow motion,” Fiedorowicz said. “That ball was in the air forever.”
1. Hitchens strips, recovers and saves Iowa's victory over Michigan.
It happened on the quiet part of a play. The quarterback sped up field, took a left and straddled the out of bounds. This is usually when players let up and start looking to line up.
Not this time.
Hitchens saw that Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner had the ball in the wrong arm. He took a punch at it and ended up flat on the Kinnick Stadium FieldTurf. And there was the ball, bouncing inches from his facemask. The ball, the beautful, beautiful ball.
“The ball could’ve easily gone out of bounds,” Hitchens said. “I was in the right place at the right time.”
Hitchens’ play halted Michigan’s final drive and sealed Iowa’s 24-21 comeback victory.
It was 18 degrees at kickoff. This set up to be a linebackers’ game, not a quarterback’s. It scripted that way all along for Iowa’s senior linebacking trio of Hitchens, James Morris and Christian Kirksey. They were going to have a say how they went out at Kinnick. They ended up having the last word.
“Maybe he [Gardner] expected not to be touched, one of those things,” Morris said. “That’s why you play to the whistle.”
Michigan had a chance to drive for the tying field goal, facing second-and-11 from Iowa’s 39 with the wind to its back. Gardner tried to finish off an 8-yard gain and also ended up flat on the sideline. There was a review, but Gardner knew. It was Iowa’s ball with 2:12 left.
“I think he was trying to decide if he wanted to get out of bounds or try to get a little more,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. “It was somewhere where, at the end of the day, he had the opportunity to get out of bounds, and I’d rather him get out of bounds.”
Hitchens’ strip and fumble happened and some of his teammates didn’t know about it until they saw him running toward the Iowa sideline holding the ball in the air.
This was good, this was where Iowa wanted it all along that blustery Saturday, a frozen linebacker’s neck roll pad of a day and Iowa's senior day.
Hitchens wore a shirt in the locker room that had “The Family” written in script on the front. He talked about the linebacker group going over to Morris’ house for meals every other week or so.
“We’re a tight group. We’re going to be friends forever,” he said. “It was very special to go out there.”