It’s Michigan. At home.
That’s who the Iowa Hawkeyes have drawn for their Big Ten Conference’s Champions Week football game. The teams will play in prime time Saturday night at 6 at Kinnick Stadium.
The game will be televised by ESPN.
Iowa (6-2) will enter on a six-game winning streak, after disposing of Wisconsin in the regular-season finale, 28-7. Michigan (2-4) had its last two games canceled because of a COVID-19 outbreak in the program.
The Wolverines have really struggled, losing four of their final five games, the exception a triple-overtime victory over Rutgers. Health permitting on both sides, it’ll be one more game at least. One more home game for Iowa.
The Hawkeyes have earned it.
“I’m just so proud of this team, the coaching staff, everyone that works in the facility,” said Iowa linebacker Nick Niemann, after the Wisconsin win. “Not giving up after that rough start to the season and just making the decision that we weren’t going to let it go downhill. That we were going to play like we were capable of. Week by week we have had convincing wins (despite) not playing like we’re capable of, yet. That’s really hard to do. But I think every week all of the phases have improved, and we have shown the capability this football team has.”
Don’t focus on what could have been with these guys, though that might be difficult.
Iowa, of course, lost its opener at Purdue by four points, giving up the go-ahead touchdown with under two minutes left. It blew a 17-0 lead after a quarter the following week and lost to Northwestern, 21-20.
The Wildcats will represent the West Division in Saturday’s Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis, opposing Ohio State. It easily could have been Iowa.
But that the Hawkeyes were able to regroup following those early heartbreaks, following all of the offseason turmoil, in a pandemic season is a testament to everyone. Things so easily could have flown completely off the rails, but they didn’t.
Perhaps that’s why Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz let the tears flow in the locker room after beating Wisconsin.
“Kirk, he gets emotional because he knows we put the effort in. We earned this,” said Iowa safety Dane Belton. “It wasn’t just given to us, we earned it. He just loves it for us, loves it for the program. It was just a great celebration in all.”
“Most of the time when we get a big win, he’s going to let it loose,” said Iowa running back Tyler Goodson. “I guess it was just bringing the trophy home (that did it).”
The Heartland Trophy, Floyd of Rosedale, the Heroes Trophy and Cy-Hawk Trophy all sit in Iowa’s football complex for a year, and that’s pretty impressive.
“My focus has really been more so once we got going here on September 30, I say September 30, I think that was the first day we could put pads on, start practicing football,” Ferentz said. “Our focus has been on this season, solely (that). To that point, really feel fortunate we’ve been able to play because it sure didn’t look like it a month before that, even building up to that. That was a real breakthrough.
“The other thing, I can’t tell you how appreciative I am personally, I think all of us are, that we woke up today, took our (COVID-19) tests, found out in the 10 o’clock area that we were going to be able to play today without any setbacks that way. It’s really kind of the way it’s been the last however many weeks. It’s day to day. You’re hoping everything works out in a way where we can keep doing what we like doing. Throw in an 0-2 start on top of that, that certainly is significant.”
Champions Week begins Friday with Nebraska at Rutgers at 3 p.m. and Purdue at Indiana at 6:30. The Big Ten championship game between Ohio State and Northwestern is Saturday at 11 a.m. in Indianapolis.
Then it’s Minnesota at Wisconsin at 3 p.m., Illinois at Penn State at 4:30, Michigan at Iowa and Michigan State at Maryland at 6:30. Illinois announced Sunday it is parting ways with head coach Lovie Smith.
Iowa likely will have a bowl game following Champions Week. Again, health permitting.
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“(The season) just says a lot about our kids, the guys we get to work with,” Ferentz said. “I’ve been saying that for quite a while, I’ll say it over and over, for 30-plus years being at Iowa, the one common denominator is the quality of the guys we get to work with. Whether you talk about the ‘80s, can’t speak to the ‘90s that much, but since I’ve been back, we have high-caliber guys and they show a lot of character.”
“It just proves that our team can overcome adversity,” said Iowa offensive lineman Mark Kallenberger. “A 0-2 start, then we finish with six in a row, and our last one is against Wisconsin, and we win like that. Everyone on the team has been doing the right thing. We haven’t had COVID issues, we haven’t had really big problems on our team. We’ve just been going week in and week out, coming to practice, doing our online school, stuff like that. Then to get this one is big. Obviously we are getting that trophy, but now we’ve got four of those trophies in our building, which we haven’t done since 2015.”
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