When the football season of 2015 had rolled around, it was a little hard for me to get excited about Iowa football. The 2013 season proved to be a bounce back year for the program, but as much hope that filled the 2013 season, the 2014 season provided an equal amount of disappointment.
The Hawkeyes were 7-3 in mid-November, and still had a shot of winning the Big Ten West, even with a blowout loss to Minnesota up in Minneapolis. The Hawkeyes lost two heartbreakers to end the regular season: a two-point home loss to Wisconsin, and even more excruciating, an overtime loss to Nebraska in a game where Iowa lead 24-7 in the 3rd quarter.
Iowa followed this up in the Gator Bowl, which resulted in a 45-21 drubbing to a mediocre Tennessee team. Hawkeye football was arguably at it’s lowest point in Kirk Ferentz’s tenure, and the pressure was on to fix the holes in the ship that is Iowa’s program.
It started almost a week after the bowl game, where Ferentz named popular backup CJ Beathard the team’s starting quarterback heading into the off-season. Then right before spring practice, Jake Rudock announced his intentions to transfer, where he ended up at Michigan. Rudock had oft been criticized for his unwillingness to take shots down the field as Iowa’s quarterback.
I remember thinking that Kirk Ferentz had only ever changed quarterbacks once in his tenure at Iowa: Benching Jake Christensen in favor of Ricky Stanzi. That decision worked out well for the Hawkeyes, so it gave me hope that this one would work out as well as the previous one had.
Game one of the 2015 season for Iowa pitted them against an Illinois State squad that had lost to North Dakota State by two points in the FCS National Championship Game the previous year. The Redbirds came into the game ranked 2nd in the Football Championship Subdivision and some picked the boys from Normal to hand Iowa its first-ever FCS loss.
That wasn’t to be the case as Iowa came out and controlled the game from start to finish in a 31-14 win, as Illinois State never crossed the goal line until midway through the 4th quarter. It was nice win to start the season, but Cy-Hawk week was up next, and while Paul Rhoads was the head coach at Iowa State, I never felt comfortable about playing the Cyclones.
A week that is filled with trash-talk (some playful, some not so much) was grinded to a halt early in the week. Word had come out that former Hawkeye star safety Tyler Sash had died from an accidental drug overdose at just 27 years old.
This one hurt. Tyler Sash was one of my favorite Hawkeyes in the time period that I fell in love with the program. The Oskaloosa-native played a huge role in Iowa’s upset win over Penn State back in 2008 with his game-changing interception late in the 4th quarter that eventually set up Daniel Murray’s kick.
It was a rather solemn mood the rest of the week, but that Friday proved to be another blow. Iowa basketball legend Roy Marble died of cancer at age 48. I never watched Roy play, but his presence was still felt while his son, Devyn, played at Iowa at the beginning of Fran McCaffery’s tenure. Another huge loss for the University of Iowa.
The day of the game I decided to do my own little tribute. I took a piece of blue masking tape and put it on the back of the Iowa jersey I wore with “RIP #9/RIP #23”. It wasn’t any masterpiece, but it made me feel better.
We went to Ames, tailgated and then got in to see warmups and eventually the kickoff. The first half might have been the ugliest half of football Iowa wound up playing the entire regular season. Iowa’s offense was lethargic outside of CJ Beathard and the Iowa defense was giving up some uncharacteristic big plays.
I vividly remember making the youthful, rather naive comment to someone that Iowa was, “playing like a JV football team”, in the first half.
The Hawkeyes came out in the second half and looked like a much different football team. Iowa took their first drive of the 2nd half and scored a touchdown off a zany play that saw tight end Henry Kreiger-Coble fumble the ball at the 5-yard line and Matt Vandeberg grabbed the loose ball and leaped into the endzone.
Iowa was alive and well, I knew it, and I think everyone else in the stadium did too.
Both teams traded punts into the 4th quarter, until CJ Beathard made one of the best throws of his life to Matt Vandeberg from his own endzone, all the way down to the Iowa State 45-yard line. Iowa wouldn’t score on the drive, but it helped flip field position.
The Hawkeyes didn’t score again until CJ Beathard hooked up with Riley McCarron for a on-the-run, 25-yard touchdown pass with just over two minutes to go in the ballgame. It was brief joy and jubilation until Hawkeye fans remembered what Iowa State did in Kinnick the previous season, and their hero kicker, Cole Netten, was still on their sidelines.
Netten never got his chance.
Desmond King picked off Sam Richardson on the drives first play. Two plays later, Jordan Canzeri scampered into the endzone. The Cy-Hawk Trophy was coming back to Iowa City in one of the most emotional contests of the Kirk Ferentz era.
It was one of the most emotional wins I’d ever gone through as a fan. I remember seeing the trophy being walked over to the Iowa fans from my place on hillside. I had tears in my eyes at that moment, it was then that I knew indefinitely, I wanted to be an Iowa Hawkeye.
Walking out of the stadium was probably my second favorite part of the night. Hi-fiving total strangers left and right and letting out a “Go Hawks!” about every 30 seconds in Ames, Iowa was a great feeling, especially on this night.
It was then, that I began to think that this Iowa team was wired a little different. It felt like this team could do something special, and as we’ll find out later…they definitely did.