Let's face it, under Kirk Ferentz, the Iowa Hawkeyes have always had a particularly interesting relationship with the Penn State Nittany Lions. Which is to say we beat them, a lot, but there's usually plenty to the game itself and its repercussions that makes these games special. There's
seven eight wins in the Kirk Ferentz era, and we're going to rank them all.
No. 2: October 23, 2004, Iowa 6, Penn State 4
You'll probably notice that this post is a little late; we'd planned to have all seven done by Friday, but that didn't happen. We're all sort of busy, and these types of posts take a little longer than usual to begin with. But more than that, this is a really difficult post to write, especially because the reasons that make this game special don't really have a whole lot to do with football itself.
As a football game, this game was terrible; Iowa was coming off a deliriously entertaining 33-7 destruction of Ohio State, while Penn State was absolutely listless; in their seven losses during the season, they'd score just 51 points. That's 7.29 points, which is to say, that's terrible. Their average margin of defeat over those seven games was only 8.0 points, which seems close, but remember: the Penn State offense was terrible. If ever a team could get blown out by a margin of one score, 2004 Penn State could do it. Thus, as stakes for a game are concerned, this one was just laughably bad in comparison to the other Iowa wins.
This game isn't even emblematic of the Iowa-Penn State series. The average score in the 10 meetings between Kirk Ferentz and Joe Paterno is Iowa 20.7 to Penn State's 18.8. In other words, there's almost 40 points scored per game, and the next-lowest scoring total is this year's 27 points. 6-4? 10 points? No touchdowns? That's not Iowa vs. Penn State, that's pillow vs. pillow.
No, this game is really about instability. It's about Joe Paterno, the most iconic, most beloved, most tenured coach in post-WW2 I-A college football, watching his team flail aimlessly for the fourth season in five years. It's about Norm Parker, losing a toe to diabetes for the first time during the early going of the season, then losing Jeff, his 33-year-old son with Down Syndrome, before the Penn State game. It's about Kirk Ferentz losing his running game the previous Saturday, then losing his father, John, the next day. After all, these three men are wonderfully devoid of the posturing, insecurity, and inanity that plagues the coaching fraternity today, and that type of emotional security often derives itself from stability--both on the field and at home.
So with that stability shaken to its core for every single coach mentioned, their character was tested, and all three men came through admirably. We can point to Paterno's already stingy defense giving up only two field goals, or Norm Parker's defense effectively shutting the Nittany Lions out, or Kirk Ferentz and the final score, but that'd sort of be missing the point.
Fans usually think of character, as it relates to football, as some "intangible" that primarily manifests itself in GPA and arrest records. But it's more than that. It's setting an example to follow. It's being there for people in their time of need. It's Ferentz leaving the team on Tuesday to be with his family, and giving a eulogy at his beloved father's funeral. It's Ferentz returning, as expected, to meet the team in Pennsylvania the day before the game. It's Ferentz coaching to the best of his abilities, long before he was "over" (if such a state exists) his father. It's the rest of the Ferentz family--minus his mother Elsie and a great aunt, as she had to take Elsie to dialysis that afternoon--being there to watch Kirk coach, just as John would have undoubtedly wanted. It's Ferentz retaking control of the game with his team at its most vulnerable by taking a safety with eight minutes to go--the football equivalent of shooting the hostage--just so he could put his faith in the defense one last time. And it's that defense, coming through as if on cue, with an interception on the very next play from scrimmage.
The 2004 team was one of Iowa's most resilient ever, but we certainly didn't know it at the kickoff of Iowa-PSU. Prior to this game, Iowa had played all of one game that ended in a margin of fewer than 13 points: Iowa 17, Iowa State 10. This notion of "Iowa wins the close ones" hadn't really manifested itself, like, ever under Kirk Ferentz yet; even with the superlative '02 and '03 seasons already in Ferentz's portfolio, Iowa was still only 9-12 in one-possession games under Ferentz at that point. But starting with that win, Iowa would finish the 2004 season--with basically no rushing game--an unreal 6-0, including 4-0 in one-possession games. The crowning achievement was in the Capital One Bowl, and we're guessing you remember that, the ultimate "just win" moment in Iowa history.
A lot of us saw Kirk Ferentz coaching through some serious emotional pain that afternoon, and a lot of us grew up as men that day--or at least we'd like to think so, anyway. And when Iowa had secured the win, and all Drew Tate had to do on Penn State's 3-yard line was kneel, and all Kirk Ferentz could do was cry with his son at his side*, Iowa fans felt just that close to Ferentz; those who had gone through similar experiences of loss empathized even that much more with a coach than was already expected. Those that hadn't, had an example to follow: mourn, do as your lost loved one would have you do, do it well, and never be too ashamed to cry. That's real strength, and we saw it that afternoon.
*Yes, that video's music is cheesy as all hell, but even past the referenced portion at 1:03, there's the only video available of Kirk Ferentz's Wisconsin postgame interview with Holly Rowe--that starts at about 5:20. It's Kirk Ferentz laid bare, and only a sociopath wouldn't feel a deep pang of sympathy by the time Rowe asks that question and Kirk struggles to muster up a "you know." She did, and we did, and there wasn't a whole lot more that needed to be said. And to Rowe's credit, she let Kirk go after that.