Hawks happy again: Long faces disappear in rout of Minnesota
IOWA CITY -
There were no mopey faces at Kinnick Stadium Saturday afternoon, nobody crying about missed opportunities or what might have been.
That's for losers.
The Iowa Hawkeyes and their faithful fans celebrated Tim Dwight's fistful of records and a near-certain bowl invitation Saturday with a 31-0 victory over Minnesota that left everyone feeling better about the 1997 campaign.
The Hawkeyes will go bowling somewhere, but the destination won't be known until later. It can wait.
"It was a great way to finish with all the heartbreak that we've had," Coach Hayden Fry said. "In our heart and mind we know we could have done better, but we didn't."
The Hawkeyes (7-4, 4-4) will forever regret losing three games by eight points, losses that ended hopes for a New Year's Day bowl game, but everybody was smiling yesterday after beating Minnesota for the fifth straight time.
Fans stormed the field and mobbed the Hawks as they plowed their way to the locker room. Nobody was more popular than Dwight, the home-grown hero who finished his career at Kinnick with drama and style.
Dwight cracked a 44-yard punt return for a touchdown — setting two Big Ten records and tying another — and also surpassed the school mark for most receiving yards in a career. It was a fitting farewell for one of the most popular players in school history and fans were reluctant to let him go.
"It was tough getting through there. All those damn fans," he said kiddingly. "They all kept hitting me in the head and stuff. I got real mad at first, but it was all in good fun."
There's never been a punt return specialist in the Big Ten like Dwight, who set records for most career touchdowns (5) and most career yards (1,086). He tied the Big Ten record for most touchdowns on punt returns in a single season (3) and snapped Danan Hughes' school mark for most career receiving yards (2,220).
Dwight shared the spotlight with Iowa's defense, which pitched its third shutout, collected five turnovers and held Minnesota to 170 yards.
"I thought we played an exceptional game," said defensive tackle Jared DeVries, who lived in the Gopher backfield. "We rose up. We stayed together."
The Hawkeye defense accepted its share of the blame for tough losses the last two weeks to Wisconsin and Northwestern, even though the offense and field-goal unit were more to blame.
"It's amazing," said linebacker Matt Hughes, who played on a sore leg. "Our team has so much character. We did everything we could this week to put those two losses behind us."
The Hawkeyes did not play a perfect game on offense. They wasted several golden opportunities and finished with 291 yards, but it was plenty against the struggling Gophers (3-9, 1-7).
Randy Reiners tossed soft 1-yard touchdown passes to Dwight and Chris Knipper in the second quarter as the Hawkeyes grabbed a 17-0 lead, capitalizing on an interception by Jason House and a fumble recovery by Eric Thigpen.
"I put some touch on them. That's the amazing thing," joked Reiners, who's been known to miss open receivers by throwing the ball too hard.
He hit Dwight on a pretty fade pattern on fourth down at the 1-yard line. He later found Knipper wide open on a play-action fake on third down at the 1.
Minnesota had chances in the first half, but Adam Bailey missed a 30-yard field goal and a 47-yard touchdown scamper by Thomas Hamner was wiped out by a holding penalty.
The U of I defense allowed an average of 13.3 points and 262.5 yards in the Big Ten games this season, ranking favorably with the best defenses in Fry's 19 years at Iowa. Only the 1981 team allowed fewer points (11.5) and the 1984 club fewer yards (248.7).
Iowa led, 17-0, late in the third quarter when the Hawkeye defense forced Minnesota to punt from its own 7-yard line. Ryan Rindels lofted his 37-yard punt to his 44, where Dwight was waiting and hoping for a chance. He got it.
Dwight darted quickly up the middle, broke into the clear, shrugged off a tackler near the 10-yard line and escaped another near the end zone to score. That gave him all those Big Ten records and delighted 64,591 fans.
"I had great confidence in the swatters keeping the stingers away, and they sure did," said Dwight, speaking in punt return language. "I think one guy was a punter, and I sure as hell wasn't going to get tackled by a punter."
Dwight eclipsed Northwestern's Brian Musso as the most prolific punt returner in Big Ten history. Musso finished this season with 1,075 yards. Dwight's five touchdowns on punt returns broke the mark held by four others, most recently Derrick Alexander of Michigan (1989-93).
Dwight, who leads the nation in punt returns, had few chances in recent weeks as teams kicked away from him.
"He's got tremendous speed, but a lot of guys have speed," Minnesota Coach Glen Mason said. "He must have a great heart for the game."
Iowa tailback Tavian Banks aggravated a sprained ankle Saturday and retired early with 18 carries for 74 yards.
The Hawkeyes stormed into their locker room Saturday shouting "We're still alive!" after clinching what should become the 14th bowl trip in the last 17 years.The Hawkeyes kept Floyd of Rosedale, their favorite pig, and finished the season with a 6-0 record at Kinnick in a fond farewell to 17 seniors.