When people see this on social media, they’re going to yell at me for bringing up such a hard memory for most in the Iowa fanbase. Trust me when I say it was hard for me as well, I had never felt so giddy about Iowa football as I did leading up to the day of December 5, 2015 and a game against Michigan State.
Or a game more colloquially known as the 2015 Big Ten Championship Game.
Iowa had a fantastic shot to beat Michigan State and reach their first-ever College Football Playoff. The Spartans got in by virtue of a de facto Big Ten Eastern Divison Championship game against Ohio State in Columbus, a game in which kicker Matt Geiger sent 108,975 Buckeyes home in a melancholy tone.
The Hawkeyes had ridden a wave all season of grind-it-out, hard-fought victories. This team was the personification of “finding ways to win”. Against Pittsburgh, it was via a 57-yard field goal by Marshal Koehn as time expired. In Evanston, it was a 200-yard, 4 touchdown rushing performance by then 4th-string running back Akrum Wadley. The regular-season finale against Nebraska saw Iowa beat the Huskers without converting a single third down all game long.
Talent-wise, it may have been one of the least-talented teams of the Ferentz era, as only one player was drafted in the following April’s draft, which was Austin Blythe in the 7th round. But, this is the kind of team America loves: a team that does the little things right, that doesn’t beat itself mentally, has the heart of a lion, and maybe gets a lucky break or two along the way.
Despite all the success, I still heard from detractors. I heard people in my town make all the Colin Cowherd references with “Dial 1-800-CREAMPUFF”, and “Iowa is the Fake ID of College Football”. I associated that more with jealousy of their respective team’s shortcomings and there hopes of schadenfreude, but I digress.
Iowa completed it’s first 12-0 regular season in school history with a Black Friday win over Nebraska in Lincoln. My joy and optimism was at a fever pitch, I could not wait for the following Saturday and a shot at the College Football Playoff, a place that just 12-months earlier, seemed as close as the moon is to the earth.
The day of the game arrives, College Gameday is in Indianapolis and the crowd is 80% Iowa fans. It was almost embarrassing how much the Hawkeyes outnumbered the Spartan faithful. I read stories over Twitter that Iowa fans had literally drank Indianapolis dry of Busch Light, it all seemed like the perfect lead-up to Iowa clinching a Big Ten Title.
The game kicked off at 7 PM, and as soon as 7 PM came around, it became an all-out war, and the battlefield was Lucas Oil Stadium. Play-after-play, drive-after-drive, Iowa and Michigan State physically beat each other up. The game also feature its fair share of wacky plays as well.
Both teams continuously traded field goals until the 4th quarter. Iowa had yet to try and test Michigan State’s secondary with a long ball, but on the first play of the final quarter, offensive coordinator Greg Davis decided to try and strike deep.
I think everyone remembers this one:
I was incoherent in my celebration, as were the likely 33,000+ Iowa fans in attendance. To that point in time, it was perhaps the biggest play in the 126-year history of Iowa football. The Hawkeyes were 14 minutes and 50 seconds away from a trip to the College Football Playoff.
If only it were 14 minutes and 22 seconds, Iowa would’ve gone to the College Football Playoff. Michigan State marched down the field on a 22-play, 82-yard drive that seemed like a feat Hercules himself couldn’t overcome.
Since I have a good idea of my audience reading this, I’ll spare you all the clip of the deciding touchdown.
Just like that, the dream was gone. Strangely, I wasn’t crushed or depressed or anything of that intensity. While I was absolutely saddened that the Hawkeyes weren’t going to the Playoff, I was able find solace rather quickly. The 2015 squad gave me and thousands of others a ride we’d never thought would be seen in Iowa City, and just 12 months earlier, no one would’ve believed it would come under Kirk Ferentz.
I was grateful that I had the opportunity to watch such an outstanding team with as much heart, as much strength, and as much grit as this one did. Besides, the Rose Bowl as consolation? Are you kidding? There’s no greater consolation prize that you could have (Even despite the outcome of that game).
The 2015 Iowa Hawkeyes will always have a special place in my heart. It didn’t have the talent the 2002 squad had, it didn’t have the big names that the 2009 squad had. But what this team did have was a boatload of intestinal fortitude, they personified what being an Iowan is: hard-working, blue-collar, tough, heart, never-say-die mentality.
They represented the State of Iowa and it’s people better than football team in our state’s history ever had, and that’s why they meant so much to me.