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INDIANAPOLIS — The biggest game a Kirk Ferentz-coached Iowa football team has played was here.
It was six years ago this weekend, and it might as well be six minutes ago given how vivid it remains.
LJ Scott’s lunge to the goal line with 27 seconds left after it momentarily appeared the freshman would be stopped short gave Michigan State a 16-13 win over the Hawkeyes in the Big Ten championship.
The win pushed the fifth-ranked Spartans into the College Football Playoff, and kept No. 4 Iowa out.
No bowl game in the Ferentz era compares in importance as that night in Indy. Not the Orange Bowl against USC to end the 2002 season, not the Rose Bowl against Stanford six seasons ago, both one-sided losses for the Hawkeyes. Not the Orange Bowl win over Georgia Tech in January 2010.
Certainly not No. 3 Iowa staving off No. 4 Penn State in Kinnick Stadium in October, especially given how both teams fell out of the national-playoff conversation shortly thereafter.
The Game of the Ferentz Era was that savage thing in Lucas Oil Stadium on a Saturday night with the nation watching. It was raw and punishing. Every yard came hard.
The ACC title game played at the same time was Clemson beating North Carolina, 45-37. The Pac-12 title game had 63 points. Iowa-MSU thing was an aberration, yet this was the conference championship America talked most about afterward, fascinated by the physicality and the tension.
“I got more compliments about our team after that game than I did any of the other 12 or maybe those other 12 combined,” Ferentz said, “just because both teams competed so hard.”
Now the Hawkeyes need an equal effort in Lucas Oil Stadium six years later. They aren’t a win away from the playoffs this time, but are a win Saturday night from the Big Ten championship and the Rose Bowl.
Michigan, meanwhile, must stop Iowa to go to those playoffs and vie for a national title, a quest that once was common for the school.
Iowa is a big underdog, the would-be spoiler. The nation’s interest in this game is strictly Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines, who impressed so many last Saturday with the efficient and physical way in which they beat Ohio State.
Iowa shot up to No. 2 in the nation at midseason, but fell hard to earth with two dreary defeats and left the national discussion altogether. Still, it begins this night against mighty Michigan with a 0-0 score, and a chance for the very biggest win with Ferentz as coach.
But how on earth does it get that victory?
“Two times ago, when we played these guys in '16, I think we were 34 (point) underdogs, 26, something like that,” said Ferentz. It was 21 points, and Iowa won, 14-13.
“I think back to the Penn State in '08 game where they were second or third in the country, whatever they might have been,” he said about his team’s 24-23 win over the No. 3 Nittany Lions.
“The thing about LSU (in Iowa’s 30-25 Capital One Bowl win in 2005), which I know it was a miracle play at the end, the miracle was that after 59 minutes that we were even in the ballgame if you really looked at their personnel.
“I look at those three games, and I told the team the fun part about these games is you really have to be at your best each and every play.”
Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson could win the Heisman Trophy and be the No. 1 selection in the 2022 NFL Draft. Fellow defensive end David Ojabo could be a first-rounder himself.
How do Iowa’s offensive tackles keep those two from breathing down Spencer Petras’ neck all night long? How does the Hawkeyes’ defense slow Michigan’s rushing game, the Big Ten’s best?
“We're going to have to come up with something,” Ferentz said. “Somewhere along the way, create a break or whatever. And somehow, some way find a way to get it done.”
That sounds more than a bit vague. Scraping out victories against Northwestern, Minnesota, Illinois and Nebraska in November was one thing. Saturday night, under lights as bright as the Hawkeyes ever see, they need to play their finest game of the year to even have a chance of turning college football on its ear.
To get its biggest win in Ferentz’s 23 seasons, Iowa needs more than being resourceful and resilient. It needs to be great.
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