Iowa Football

Time for Iowa football to chase brighter lights

Hawkeyes have no reason not to make a run at return to Big Ten championship game

IOWA CITY — Kirk Ferentz wore a pullover Friday night that said "Hawkeyes: Engineered to the Exact Specifications of Championship Athletes."

That seemed an unusually bold statement from the Iowa football coach. When asked after his team’s final spring practice of 2019 what it meant, if anything, he had to look at the shirt to see what it said. It was just something he wore for comfort, not expression.

The phrase is just one of Nike’s many slogans over the years, and they aren’t necessarily paths to enlightenment. A statement inside the Iowa football complex was more meaningful. Beneath a photo of Hawkeye players entering the Kinnick Stadium playing field in their traditional Swarm formation was this caption:

“The Road to Indianapolis Travels Through These Doors.”

Which isn’t really truth in advertising itself. The Hawkeyes have played in just one of the eight Big Ten championship games in Indy, the 2015 edition. Wisconsin represented the West Division in 2016 and 2017, and Northwestern had that distinction last December.

Northwestern, as you may recall, clinched the West in Kinnick last Nov. 10 with its 14-10 triumph, holding the Hawkeyes to 64 rushing yards.

Iowa did go on to beat Mississippi State in the Outback Bowl, somehow finding enough offense against a defense that had three players picked in the first round of the NFL Draft Thursday night.

Iowa had two first-rounders itself, tight ends T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant. Two first-round offensive players, but an offense that was 91st in the nation in total offense.

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Iowa is NFL Combine medals and offseason weight-room records and a celebration of draft picks and Outback Bowls and “Tight End U.” Isn’t it time for the program to find its way back to Indianapolis and play under some really bright lights again?

The West no longer is bottom-heavy with mediocrities. Wisconsin remains Wisconsin, which is to say formidable. Northwestern is fresh off not only a division title, but a third-straight bowl win. Purdue, lousy not long ago, is 2-0 against the Hawkeyes under Jeff Brohm. Minnesota had an impressive finish to P.J. Fleck’s second season there with one-sided wins over Purdue, Wisconsin and Georgia Tech in its last four games.

Meanwhile, we all wait to see what kind of beast Scott Frost builds at Nebraska. That the 4-win Huskers pushed Iowa to the last second in Kinnick last Black Friday seems ominous.

However, it isn’t as if Iowa hasn’t advanced with the times. Its facilities are as good as they need to be, and its recruiting also has been upgraded. It feels like the coaching staff has more mental flexibility than perhaps ever. The program feels vibrant entering Ferentz’s 21st season as its chief.

We know Iowa’s competition is considerable. We also know a football isn’t round and takes unpredictable bounces literally and figuratively.

But 2019 should be a season when “Tight End U.” gives way to something a little dynamic. There’s a proven quantity in senior quarterback Nate Stanley. There’s a collection of wide receivers who ought to open things up, led by (but not limited to) juniors Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette. Redshirt freshman Nico Ragaini easily was the receiver who was the most eye-catching Friday.

There’s a pair of potential high draft picks a year from now in tackles Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs, and a fast-riser in redshirt freshman center Tyler Linderbaum.

“Tyler’s a great player,” Jackson said Friday. “He could take us to the next level.”

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Maybe Iowa can be a capable rushing team after being a frustrating 95th nationally last year and 97th in 2017.

Iowa’s defense, which lost two juniors to the fourth round of the draft Saturday, was really good last year and could be better. End A.J. Epenesa checks more boxes than a census survey, but there’s a lot of talent and potential spread across the unit.

Rush better, punt better, and maybe the road to Indianapolis really will pass through Iowa City. The Hawkeyes and the Outback Bowl have seen more than enough of each other for a while, anyhow.

l Comments: (319) 368-8840; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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