By John J. Thompson
The Iowa Hawkeyes remain undefeated at home and gained bowl eligibility last Saturday with a 24-16 victory over the 13th ranked Michigan Wolverines in Iowa City. It was a stunning turnaround following a stunning defeat at Minnesota that many fans called the worst loss of the Kirk Ferentz era.
With their 24-16 victory over the 13th ranked Wolverines, the Hawkeyes improved to 6-3 overall and 3-2 in Big Ten play this season. With six victories, Iowa is now eligible to play in a bowl game this season. It is the tenth time in Kirk Ferentz’s 13 seasons as the head coach of the Hawkeyes that they have been bowl eligible.
“I remember after the Minnesota game, I was thinking that if we couldn’t beat them we might not even make it to six wins,” said Melanie Nelson, a junior at Iowa. “I knew that coming up we had two tough home games against Michigan and Michigan State, and two games on the road. It was pretty hard to imagine winning any of those games.”
With the victory against Michigan, it seems Ferentz has righted the ship. Fans are again buzzing about the Hawkeyes’ chances of winning the division and dreaming of a division title and a trip to Indianapolis to play in the conference championship game.
“If they can play that way the rest of the season, we have a great chance to be the first ever Legends Division Champions,” says Nelson.
Even though Iowa is not in first place, the Hawkeyes still control their own destiny in the division race. This weekend’s opponent, Michigan State, is in first place in the Legends Division of the Big Ten Conference. The Spartans hold a one-game lead in the division over Iowa, Nebraska, and Michigan.
If Iowa is able to defeat Michigan State in the last home game of the season, the Hawkeyes would have the chance to win the division on the road. They travel to Purdue and Nebraska the next two weekends. If Iowa wins out, the Hawkeyes will go to the conference title game, because they will own tie-breakers against Michigan, Nebraska and Michigan State.
While Iowa is undefeated at home this season, the Hawkeyes haven’t won on the road. They lost an overtime thriller in Ames to Iowa State, and two Big Ten losses at Penn State and Minnesota. The Iowa defense allowed late touchdowns in both the Iowa State and Minnesota losses. For the next three weeks, the Iowa defense will need to play like it did against Michigan.
“The defense looked great against Michigan,” says Nelson. Iowa’s defense stepped up in a big way against the Wolverines, allowing only 323 yards against a team that had gained more than 500 yards in three of four previous games.
Whether at home or on the road, the Hawkeyes’ defense still needs to improve in the 4th quarter. They allowed Michigan to gain 152 yards 4th last weekend. In a reversal of fortunes from the previous week against the Gophers, the Hawks made the plays in the game’s final minutes when they needed to. They shut down Denard Robinson four times at the goal line, to seal the victory. The Hawkeyes actually held Robinson to only 55 rushing yards for the game, an encouraging stat, given Iowa’s recent struggles with scrambling quarterbacks.
Offensively, Marcus Coker fueled the Hawkeyes with 132 yards on 29 carries. It was the 4th straight game Coker has topped 100 yards on the ground, and he is now over 1,000 yards for the season. Coker is the first Hawkeye ball carrier to top 1,000 yards rushing since Shonn Greene in his record-breaking 2008 season. Coker is now the Big Ten rushing leader with 1,101 yards, ahead of Wisconsin’s Montee Ball who is at 1,076.
If Iowa’s defense can continue to play the way it did against Michigan than the Hawks’ should be able to ride Coker’s production all the way to Indianapolis.