The 2002 Iowa football team is being honored at this weekend's Iowa-UNI game; former captain Bruce Nelson (the center on that team's otherworldly offensive line) is serving as the honorary captain for the game and there are some other activities planned, from what I understand. 2012 is the 10-year anniversary of that storied team's accomplishments, so it certainly makes sense to honor them. At BHGP we've actually spent a lot of time over the last six weeks or so discussing the 2002 team and reminiscing about some of its greatest games, like the OT thriller with Penn State, the completely ridiculous win over Purdue, the Big House beatdown of Michigan, or the victory lap that was the Minnesota game.
But there was one game from the 2002 season that we didn't cover in our Kirk's Works countdown. It wasn't a particularly exciting game and it certainly wasn't a close game. But it's stayed with me just as vividly as those other 2002 wins, albeit for very different reasons. The game I'm talking about is the 2002 Northwestern game, a 62-10 massacre in favor of Iowa.
Northwestern wasn't a significant opponent. In 2000, Iowa had upset a good Northwestern team on the verge of making the Rose Bowl (one of the biggest early wins of Ferentz's tenure), but the 2002 incarnation wasn't any good. They were 3-7 entering the game and ended the season 3-9. They gave up 31 or more points in 10 of 12 games. Hell, unlike last year's win over Northwestern at Kinnick, there wasn't even a great cathartic release; the '02 win made it three in a row for Iowa over Northwestern (the 'Cats would only begin to haunt us in the next meeting, in 2005). They were just a bad team that Iowa plastered. So why does the game linger for me?
In part it lingers because it was Senior Day and the final home of the season, which meant it was an opportunity to say "goodbye" to a team that, between September and November, had become something truly incredible. I'm not sure I've ever witnessed a better in-game "goodbye" than the one that the 2002 offensive line received when they left the field as a unit in the third quarter, hand-in-hand, to a standing ovation from the Kinnick Stadium crowd and a deafening ovation. We often see spirited celebrations when great players are substituted out of games in baseball or basketball. We don't often get to see that sort of curtain call in football. We did here, though, and it was pretty remarkable.
But the other reason the game lingers with me is because it was one of the best games I've ever seen Iowa play. It was just about as close to football perfection as Iowa has attained under Ferentz. In fact, Brad Banks actually was perfect in this game: 10/10 for 197 yards passing and 3 TDs, plus 5 carries for 54 yards and 2 TDs on the ground. And he did all that in about two and a half quarters of work. (I don't remember the exact time he was substituted out of the game, but the box score lists a touchdown pass from Nathan Chandler to C.J. Jones at the 6:23 mark of the third quarter.) The Iowa offense in this game was an absolute thing of beauty. They did whatever they wanted to do, whenever they wanted to do it.
We often hear about how Team X could have "named their score" against Team Y, but we don't often hear it said when a game involves two major conference teams (or, frankly, when one of the teams is Iowa, who is, was, and probably never will be known for offensive profligacy under Ferentz; the 62 points scored in this game still represents Iowa's high-water mark for scoring in the KF era). But Iowa absolutely could have named their score in this game. If Ferentz had wanted to put up 80+ in this game, there was nothing stopping him. The Iowa offense was an unstoppable force and the Northwestern defense was full of very movable objects.
As an Iowa fan, it's rare to see that level of dominance, that level of perfection out of a single performance. Iowa has made a tradition out of winning ugly, of being imperfect overachievers. The other game from the KF era that springs to mind as similar to this one is the 55-0 drubbing of Minnesota from 2008, although I distinguish that game from the '02 jNW game by how long it took the offense to get clicking in that game -- that game was still only 6-0 Iowa with 10 minutes to go in the second quarter. Eventually the offense got humming, but it was the defense and special teams that really got that rout going. The offense was the star of the show in the '02 jNW game, though, and they shown brightly from the get-go. It was something to behold... and that's why this game has stayed with me so vividly for a decade now.
P.S. I know there have been other impressively dominant performances by past Iowa teams, for instance the 54-28 win over Illinois in 1990 (although one was more like three impressively dominant quarters). I just wasn't old enough to fully appreciate that game or several others. Feel free to talk about them in the comments.