IOWA CITY — Oh the ever-so-sweet but definitely kind-of-sticky senior day.
Of course, it’s a wonderful tribute and honor to run out to midfield at Kinnick Stadium to greet your parents. They were the ones there when football was barely a dream. It’s not the end of things as far as careers go, but it’s a reminder that shoulder pads soon will be leaving the majority of these guys’ lives.
Linebacker Amani Jones had a chance to talk about his career and his young son Amani Jr. on Tuesday. The world learned that quarterback Nate Stanley is a woodworker. Fullback Brady Ross talked about what four years of running into linebackers felt like.
“The highs and lows are just — they’re hard to compare to anything else you experience in life,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Something you go through at those times with people, the people you care about and the people that have worked really hard and invested, yeah, there’s a real special bond that forms. I think that’s what sports are all about. That’s the best part with sports from my standpoint.”
You already know the next part of the story.
The No. 17 Hawkeyes (7-3, 4-3 Big Ten) welcome Illinois (6-4, 4-3) for the 2019 home finale at Kinnick Stadium. On Oct. 12, after a 42-25 loss to Michigan, the Fighting Illini stood 2-4. Since then, they’ve reeled off four straight wins, including victories over Wisconsin and Michigan State. Illinois put a bowling alley in the players’ lounge in August and now it’s bowl eligible for the first time since 2014 (presumably the two aren’t related).
Iowa wide receiver Brandon Smith and cornerback Michael Ojemudia are practicing this week and have a chance to play. Smith has missed three games with an ankle injury. Ojemudia sat out last week with an undisclosed injury. Running back Tyler Goodson is practicing and fine after an ankle tweak last week.
Last week felt like a debut for Goodson. In his first start, the true freshman from Suwanee, Ga., rushed for 94 yards and a 10-yard TD run that shattered ankles and dreams. Goodson added an element that Iowa’s running game has been missing this season. Let’s allow Ferentz to fill in this blank.
“Well, anytime you make something out of nothing ...” Ferentz said. “I don’t know how many yards we had that play blocked for, maybe two, and he converted it into a touchdown. Anytime you can do that, run or pass, that’s a good thing.”
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Illinois is such a hot commodity right now in the Big Ten that the school’s sports information department went to the trouble of breaking down the scenario that would earn the Illini the Big Ten West Division title and a spot in Indianapolis for the Big Ten title game.
Safe to say this involves beating Iowa, which demolished Illinois 63-0 last season. Iowa knows this isn’t that Illinois. This Illinois is an amazing plus-14 in turnover margin, leading the nation. The Illini also lead the nation in takeaways with 26.
“They have a very talented defensive line that puts pressure on the quarterback,” Stanley said. “You put a ball up in the air, they go get it. They swarm to the ball and rip at it. They make the most of those opportunities.”
So, it’s a highly emotional week for the Hawkeyes. Of course, the team turns to its head coach, a paragon of emotional control.
OK, except for postgame locker room celebrations.
One thing that has evolved over Ferentz’s 21 seasons as Iowa’s head coach is the program’s willingness to take you inside. Between 1999 and probably 2015 or so, you didn’t get to see a lot of the happy postgame locker rooms. After last week’s 23-19 win over No. 8 Minnesota, UI cameras showed Ferentz’s speech.
— Hawkeye Football (@HawkeyeFootball) November 17, 2019
Ferentz kept it together until it was time to bring it in. Then, it was waterworks.
“You are what you are,” Ferentz said. “You know, you are what you are, and I’ve been accused of being emotionless, I think, many times. But you are what you are, and I’m my dad’s son. My dad had that same gene. You just are what you are. That’s one thing I believe no matter what you are, be who you are, and that’s be comfortable with who you are.
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“It’s the way it worked out. There’s not much I can change at this point, and I’m really not interested at my age in changing a hell of a lot.”
His players wouldn’t have it any other way. And when their coach is losing it, they have a play call.
“It’s kind of a running joke,” Stanley said. “Once we see him starting to get emotional, we’ll start to cheer or something that kind of snowballs it a little bit. It’s emotional in a different way. I think it’s genuine happiness.”
You can have that in football.
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