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The Iowa football team hits the road for the first time this season this week, heading out to wonderful Piscataway, N.J. to face Rutgers — hopefully not to be met at the Newark, N.J., airport by Tony Soprano (that’s the last Sopranos joke, promise).
It’s the first meeting between the two schools, and first Big Ten game for both this season. Let’s look at some aspects to this matchup and the people involved in this week’s 5 Things: Hawkeyes vs Scarlet Knights.
Rutgers wasn’t competitive in the Big Ten last season. Taking out their one Big Ten win, a 55-52 shootout with Indiana, and a 46-41 loss to Maryland to close the season, Rutgers lost to Big Ten opponents by an average score of 39-12.
Rutgers’ 2-1 start began by being outclassed by No. 9 Washington. That was followed, though, by a demolition of Howard — OK, maybe not the most impressive opponent, but beating a team you’re supposed to beat by a lot should count for something — and a comeback win against New Mexico. The Scarlet Knights are led by a rushing attack that’s averaging 5.2 yards per carry (starting running back Robert Martin has 37 carries for 252 yards and a touchdown).
No, Rutgers isn’t going to challenge for the Big Ten East. But there’s belief it’ll be better, and that’s something.
“You don’t win those last two games like we’ve done after we put ourselves in holes if you don’t have really strong character kids and a strong belief in what you’re doing and in each other,” said head coach Chris Ash. “And (I’m) really happy for our guys to say that we have that right now.”
Consistency and continuity most often go hand-in-hand. It’s much easier to be good as a college football team if the system the players are learning is the same and the leadership they’re learning it from is the same.
Iowa has had that, essentially, since 1979. Having two head coaches in nearly 40 years is not something Rutgers can say.
Rutgers has had seven coaches since Hayden Fry was hired at Iowa. Since Frank Burns (not the one bullied by a Hawkeye) was hired in 1973, Rutgers has had a winning record in the first season under a new coach three times. The Scarlet Knight program has yo-yoed from good (1970s-early 1980s) to mediocre (1980s) to bad (1990s) to good (Greg Schiano era) back to mediocre (the fired Kyle Flood won’t be missed for a few reasons).
In just the Ferentz era, Iowa is 129-88. Rutgers is 101-110 in the same span — under four head coaches.
…Which leads us to Ash wanting to model Rutgers after Iowa.
Ash is an Iowa guy, having grown up in Ottumwa and played football at Drake before going into coaching. He was an assistant at Iowa State under Dan McCarney (2000-06), then again under Paul Rhoads in 2009. But before he wore Cardinal and Gold, or formed Big Ten ties as an assistant at Wisconsin (2010-12) and Ohio State (2014-15), Ash was a Hawkeye fan, and has long admired what Fry and Ferentz have done.
So it should come as no surprise he wants the Scarlet Knights to play a lot like the Hawkeyes. Ash said Monday Iowa’s success year after year in a few key areas provide the blueprint for a program that wins games regularly. Ash learned under some very successful head coaches, but it was Iowa he highlighted as his program example.
“You look at that football team and they really are what we want to be,” Ash said of Iowa. “They’re always good at the offensive line. They’re good on the D-line. They consistently have a fairly productive quarterback. You look at last year, you look at this year, you look at every year they’ve been successful; those three things are consistent. And that’s what we want, that’s what most teams want, and if you have that, you have a chance to go out and beat anybody.”
Ash is connected to the Hawkeyes by more than just admiration and desired playing style. His two stints at Iowa State were broken up by two seasons at San Diego State, working under then-head coach Chuck Long. Yes, that Chuck Long.
The Iowa fandom Ash had as a young man was highlighted by a birthday/Christmas gift. He was given a football signed by — you guessed it — former Iowa quarterback Chuck Long. It also happened to arrive after a pretty good Hawkeyes season, too.
“When I was growing up as a kid, I did, I cheered for Iowa,” Ash said. “A birthday gift I got, actually it was a Christmas gift that I got at one point, it was an autographed Chuck Long football. Chuck was playing at Iowa, and I believe it was 1985.
“So that was one of my best birthday gifts. It was a birthday/Christmas because my birthday is December 24th, but an autographed Chuck Long ball.”
There was no follow-up from local reporters on the current whereabouts of said football.
Some key events in the world in 1869: Ulysses S. Grant was sworn in for his first term as President, Mohandas Gandhi was born, Iowa’s Big Ten cohort Purdue University was founded and, most importantly for our purposes here, Rutgers and Princeton played the first college football game.
It didn’t really look like what the rabid nation of college and professional football fans know it as now, but without that game, we might never have gotten to see “Rudy” or Lee Corso putting on funny hats — one of which would just be devastating.
Rutgers, known then as the “Queensmen” wore scarlet handkerchiefs on their heads (the “Scarlet” in Scarlet Knights, if you weren’t paying attention), beat Princeton, 6-4, while being captained by William J. Leggett. They played a second game a week later, won by Princeton, 8-0, and finished the first college football season 1-1. Not having a rubber match to determine the first national championship is headache-inducing, but school came first back then, apparently.
Iowa’s first college football season came in 1892. No word on what UI Presidents James Black (1868-70), George Thatcher (1871-77), Josiah Little Pickard (1878-87) or Charles Ashmead Schaeffer (1887-98) were thinking waiting so long to form a team.
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