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Iowa, united

Through injuries, tragedy, Ferentz's Hawkeyes have banded together

Posted: Wednesday November 10, 2004 3:17PM; Updated: Wednesday November 10, 2004 4:17PM
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Kirk Ferentz
Head coach Kirk Ferentz took the Hawkeyes to the Orange Bowl in 2002 and the Outback Bowl in 2003.
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

I've had some grim college football assignments over my five-plus years at Sports Illustrated but few compare to the pilgrimage I made to State College, Pa., last weekend. The whole episode -- the frustrated fans, the dejected players, JoePa's sad, tired expression -- left me longing to cover a happy, heroic story for this week's column. For that, I turned to one of Penn State's recent opponents: Iowa.

In case you're not up to speed on this below-the-radar team, the Hawkeyes beat Purdue 23-21 last Saturday. They are 7-2, 5-1 in the Big Ten, which puts them in striking distance of conference co-leaders Wisconsin (9-0, 6-0), which they play host to in two weeks, and Michigan (8-1, 6-0).

It's no huge surprise that Iowa, which is coming off back-to-back seasons of at least 10 wins under head coach Kirk Ferentz in 2002 and 2003, is having success. What's most impressive is the team's improvement since mid-September. During the past two months, the Hawkeyes have faced obstacles that could have easily driven them into the Big Ten's basement with -- how times have changed -- the Nittany Lions. Instead, Iowa has climbed from a .500 record to a No. 19 ranking in The Associated Press poll.

Nineteen, as a matter of fact, was precisely where the preview guides pegged the Hawkeyes to be this year. But that modest height became the equivalent of Annapurna not long into the season, when Iowa's offense, already fragile with inexperienced sophomore Drew Tate quarterbacking and a rebuilt offensive line blocking, was bitten by the injury bug. The first victim was starting tailback Marcus Schnoor, who tore his right ACL in the first quarter of a 39-7 win over Kent State. Next was backup Albert Young, who suffered the same injury, during the second quarter of a 17-10 win over Iowa State the next week. What ensued were back-to-back losses, first to Arizona State (44-7) and then Michigan (30-17), dropping Iowa to 2-2 and out of the national rankings. "Careless Hawkeyes fumble away game plan," read one Sunday headline out of Iowa City. "Flushing this defeat away won't be so easy," warned another.

And yet, Iowa found a way to do just that. With a 38-16 win over Michigan State, the team avoided its first three-loss string since 2000. The postgame locker room might have been even more jubilant if, before halftime, new starter Jermelle Lewis hadn't capped a 28-yard gain by clutching his knee. The diagnosis: another right ACL tear.

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Misfortune, as it turned out, had no quit. After the injury-hobbled Hawkeyes rallied to a 33-7 win over Ohio State for their second-straight victory, John Ferentz, the 84-year-old father of Kirk and grandfather of Iowa offensive lineman Brian, succumbed to a longtime illnesss in Asbury Heights, Pa. On Tuesday night, after gathering himself, Ferentz gathered the team. He told them the news and explained that while the players didn't know his father, his father, whom Kirk talked to regularly, knew all of them. He and Brian then left for Pennsylvania for a Friday funeral.

Heartbreak on top of bad luck on top of an already thin roster might have understandably toppled Iowa like a house of cards. Instead, when their head coach and teammate reunited with the team at Penn State the following Saturday, the Hawkeyes simply, improbably, responded. This Saturday, behind an improving-by-fire quarterback (Tate) and a walk-on tailback (Sam Brownlee), Iowa will bring a five-game win streak into Minnesota's Metrodome.

When Iowa hired Ferentz in 1999, many fans grumbled that he was not Bob Stoops, then a hot-commodity Florida assistant. Now, one conference title and one coach-of-the-year award later, Ferentz is mentioned whenever a high-profile college or pro head coaching job -- like the current Gators vacancy -- opens. It's a testament to his ability to win games with players who tend to be low in the recruiting rankings, and lately, just plain low. Ferentz, as is his nature, deflects the praise. "I can't say enough about our players," he said from his office on Tuesday night. "We've had our share of potholes. But nobody's offering up excuses. It's as close-knit a group as I've been around."

It must be said that that Iowa-Penn State game, which the Hawkeyes won by the punchline score of 6-4, will go down as one of the least watchable games in recent sports history. But no scene that I have witnessed this season has moved me more than that of Hawkeye players, some on crutches, collecting around a teary-eyed Kirk and Brian Ferentz in the Beaver Stadium shadows late that afternoon. The 2004 Hawkeyes are not, as coach Ferentz wryly put it, "a beauty pageant team." But they have been, perhaps more than any other group playing college football this season, a team.

Sports Illustrated writer-reporter Kelley King covers college football for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.