Just like that, the Iowa football season is over.
COVID-19 issues within the Missouri program prompted the cancellation of Wednesday’s Music City Bowl against the Hawkeyes at Nashville, Tenn. It’s the 17th canceled bowl game this season.
“On behalf of our whole team, it’s just extremely disappointing to end the season this way,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. “This is two games in a row now where we just haven’t been able to get to the finish line. That’s certainly disappointing, I feel terrible for our players, first and foremost.
“Can’t say enough about the group that we’ve been able to work with this year. It’s just been a remarkable group of players, remarkable young people.”
Iowa finishes with a 6-2 record and a six-game win streak. It made it through the entire regular season unscathed from a game-cancellation standpoint, but lost its Big Ten Conference Champions Week game against Michigan because of coronavirus issues with the Wolverines, and now its bowl game.
Missouri Athletics Director Jim Sterk said his football program would have to pause all activities through January 2 because of a rise in positive cases since the Tigers’ regular-season finale last weekend against Mississippi State.
“Since concluding our regular season and conducting four rounds of tests over the last eight days, we have seen a significant increase in positive COVID-19 tests among our student-athletes, coaches and staff,” Sterk said “And after consulting with local health officials, our team physicians and MU Health’s Dr. Steve Whitt, who is our representative on the SEC Medical Task Force, we unfortunately must pause all football team-related activities until at least January 2 to help contain the virus’ spread and ensure the health and well-being of everyone within our program and the community.”
Missouri players were allowed to go home over Christmas and returned to campus Friday, something not lost on Iowa players. There is a perception by some, right or wrong, that the Tigers (5-5), who had a shortage of players at the end of the season, did not necessarily want to play this game despite committing to it.
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People don’t understand that we’re used to not seeing our families on holidays. I haven’t been with my family for Christmas in five years. We stayed in town while they went home. If you didn’t want to play in the bowl game you should’ve just said so
— Keith Duncan (@keithdunc3) December 27, 2020
“People don’t understand that we’re used to not seeing our families on holidays,” Iowa kicker Keith Duncan tweeted Sunday afternoon. “I haven’t been with my family for Christmas in five years. We stayed in town while they went home. If you didn’t want to play in the bowl game you should’ve just said so.”
Missouri Coach Eli Drinkwitz said social media posts such as Duncan’s were highly unfair, especially to Mizzou players. He said he did not think there should be any blame placed for the cancellation but would wear it if anyone wanted to assign it to someone.
“For us to be belittled or beleaguered on social media or players to be challenged because they went home for Christmas is unfair,” Drinkwitz said. “If they want to direct that at anybody, ultimately as the head coach, you can place that blame on my shoulders. But our players didn’t do anything wrong. It’s just unfortunate that we’re going through a global pandemic.”
“I’m careful to pass judgement on anybody,” Ferentz said. “We had our hardships a week ago.”
Iowa resumed practice Saturday after pausing all in-person activities for five days because of a COVID-19 outbreak of its own. Ferentz was among a group of six coaches who tested positive for the virus, while multiple players and other team personnel also were positive.
The coach said he went to his team’s leadership group Monday night and asked if it wanted to push forward. Its answer, he said, was a resounding yes, one of the prouder moments of the season for him.
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Iowa players worked out on their own at local high-school fields, Ferentz said, to continue to stay sharp during the five-day pause. In the last two days, wide receivers Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith announced they were opting out of playing in the bowl in order to concentrate on the NFL Draft.
Ferentz said his team would not have been at full strength Wednesday for the game. Turns out there won’t be one.
Finding a last-minute replacement opponent or pushing back the date of the Music City Bowl were not options.
“Health and safety remains at the core of every decision this season, and we’ve always known something like this was a possibility,” Iowa Athletics Director Gary Barta said in a statement “I am disappointed for our student-athletes not being able to play in a bowl game, yet so proud of their focus and sacrifice throughout the year. 2020 will certainly be a season to remember.”
“This is certainly one of those years where you don’t assume anything is going to happen,” Ferentz said. “You take nothing for granted. I think a healthy thing for all of us to do, and I encouraged our team to do this, is to take a step back and appreciate what we were able to do. Because back in August, it looked like we weren’t going to have an opportunity to do anything. So let’s appreciate those eight games we had together, all the time we’ve had together.”
Iowa succeeded despite the always looming coronavirus pandemic and the chaos of the summer, when the program underwent an investigation for systemic racial bias. Longtime strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle was relieved of his duties.
Iowa lost its opener of this delayed season Oct. 24 at Purdue, 24-20, on a late touchdown pass, then blew a 17-0 lead after the first quarter to Northwestern in its second game, losing, 21-20. But instead of folding, this group rallied, smashing Michigan State in its third game, 49-7.
The Hawkeyes continued to improve as things went along, pounding Minnesota (35-7) and beating Penn State (41-21) in back-to-back road games. Then it was a 26-20 win over Nebraska, rallying for a 35-21 win at Illinois and ending the regular season with a home win over Wisconsin, 28-7, recapturing the Heartland Trophy for the first time in five years.
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“We had some pretty good moments to finish on right there,” said Ferentz, who continued to display a persistent cough during a Sunday Zoom session with reporters. “Winning that (game) and being in that locker room. If that’s where I got the COVID, that day, I’ll take it. It was worth it. That Saturday, it was worth it.”
Iowa had the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year and Defensive Lineman of the Year in junior tackle Daviyon Nixon. It is believed Nixon has played himself into being a first-round NFL draft pick, and Ferentz said he has had discussions with Nixon about turning pro.
He added he had not had any talks with outstanding sophomore center Tyler Linderbaum about leaving early, and said he did not believe Linderbaum was seriously considering it.
All seniors will have the opportunity to come back and play again in 2021, though Smith, Smith-Marsette, Duncan and linebacker Nick Niemann are among those who already have publicly said they will move on. Tight end Shaun Beyer is scheduled to compete in a combine in January, which is an indication he also will not be back.
Ferentz will be back for his 23rd season as Iowa’s head coach.
“I might need an oil change, a 65,000-mile oil change,” Ferentz said. “But I feel pretty good physically. This is what I like doing. That’s probably one other reinforcement of the COVID pandemic era that we’ve lived through. I’m not quite ready to start stamp collecting or bird watching.”
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