Every team has its share of those improbable moments that viewers know, as they’re watching them, will resonate with the fan base forever. Whether it’s a remarkable play, a stunning and unexpected upset, or just a hard-fought win in a great atmosphere against a quality opponent, sports fans are constantly chasing moments that fans can revisit years later and ask one another “do you remember where you were when…?”
Ten years ago, Hawkeye fans were gifted with an ENTIRE SEASON full of those moments. Being a fan of the 2009 Iowa football team was the craziest, most unpredictable, most nerve wracking, and most remarkable sports viewing experience one can imagine. For a head coach who has become the epitome of stability in college football, the 09 team was shockingly, beautifully chaotic. One could even argue that it was the best team assembled under Ferentz’s leadership leadership. It’s been a decade since Hawkeye fans lived the perpetual heart attack that was the 2009 Iowa football team, and it would be criminal not to take a moment to celebrate the memory of that year accordingly.
Iowa’s 09 squad was straight out of central casting for a B-list sports movie about team of plucky outcasts banding together to overcome the odds. Quarterback Ricky Stanzi looked like an off-brand Tom Brady and spouted lines that could easily have been cribbed from a George W. Bush campaign rally. Star wide receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos was a larger-than-life character who constantly moved in and out of the coach’s doghouse. Free safety Brett Greenwood was a former walk-on. Stars like Tony Moeaki and Dace Richardson were highly-touted recruits whose careers had been derailed by injury before they were finally able to stay (mostly) healthy during their senior years. Iowa’s middle linebacker literally had the word “Anger” in his name and played like it, too. This team was one Welsh kicker, deaf tight end, and a cameo appearance from Keanu Reeves from being a reality show version of The Replacements.
But MAN could this team play football! Like most Iowa teams, the 09 squad relied heavily on its defense, and what a defense it was. Adrian Clayborn was a terror off the edge and led one of the most athletic front fours in program history. Pat Angerer, AJ Edds, and Jeremiah Hunter formed a tremendous trio at linebacker. The secondary was full of future NFL draft picks highlighted by Tyler Sash, a local product from Oskaloosa and one of the best safeties to come through Iowa City. Officially the Hawkeyes finished with the 8th best scoring defense in the country, but those numbers don’t account for the mind-blowing FOUR (yes, FOUR) pick-sixes Stanzi threw over the course of the season, or the terrible field position the defense was forced to reckon with after the other 16 interceptions thrown by Iowa quarterbacks that year. Make no mistake, this defense was elite.
The offense was…well…it was an adventure. The one certainty coming into the season was that Jewel Hampton was destined for greatness as Shonn Greene’s replacement at running back. But after a preseason knee injury caused him to miss the year, Iowa began the season with old reliable Paki O’Meara as its starting running back before giving way to dynamic freshmen Adam Robinson and Brandon Wegher in subsequent games. Sophomore Marvin McNutt transitioned from Iowa’s the dual-threat quarterback of the future to arguably the best wide receiver in the history of the program. The offensive line featured six standouts who were all capable of playing multiple positions, and Iowa’s two tight ends were dangerous both as blockers and as receivers. Stanzi was simultaneously both the greatest and worst starting quarterback in all of college football over the course of any given Saturday afternoon. The offense didn’t always work (ok, it hardly ever worked), but in the moments where this unit managed to put everything together, they could produce magic.
Still, it’s the games themselves that fans remember more than anything, and 2009 was a season full of instant classics that made Iowa’s recent victory over ISU look uneventful by comparison. Six of the Hawkeyes’ games were decided by one score or less, and in all but two games that season the final tally was within two scores (and in one of those games Iowa threw five interceptions and trailed 21-7 at halftime). The season opener told America everything it needed to know about this Iowa team, as the 22nd ranked Hawkeyes had to block two field goals to survive a home game against UNI.
Iowa could beat #5 Penn State at home one week and then immediately struggle to put away a 4-8 Arkansas State team the next. They could go on the road and physically dominate a 10-win Wisconsin squad only to need a last-second touchdown to beat a sub-.500 Michigan State team. It’s no wonder the college football world at large didn’t believe this team.
Iowa fans couldn’t have cared less, though. The Hawkeyes were shooting up the rankings, Clayborn and star left tackle Brian Bulaga were rocketing up mock draft boards, and Iowa football games were must-watch national television events on a weekly basis. For a moment there, it really looked like the stars might have aligned for this team to compete for a national championship.
Then the injury happened. Iowa appeared to be well on its way to a 10-0 record when Northwestern defensive lineman Corey Wooton sacked Stanzi in the end zone, forcing a fumble, cutting the score to 10-7 with a successful Northwestern recovery, and giving Stanzi a high ankle sprain that would knock him out for the remainder of conference play. The Hawkeyes would flounder without their leader, losing both that game and an overtime thriller at Ohio State the following Saturday before righting the ship against Minnesota. Fortunately, Stanzi was able to recover in time for Iowa’s matchup against Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl and helped captain the Hawkeyes to a decisive 24-14 win over the Yellow Jackets, complete with one last pick-six for good measure.
Amazing as Iowa’s 2009 season was, one can’t help but dwell on the missed opportunity. What might this team have been able to accomplish had Stanzi not suffered that fateful injury against Northwestern? The Hawkeyes were in control of that game before Stanzi went down, only for the offense to completely stall out and fail to score a point afterwards. Might Stanzi’s presence have helped Iowa best the eventual Rose Bowl champion Buckeyes in Columbus the following week? I have long held that the 09 Iowa team was somewhere between three to ten points better than any team in America that season; they could beat any team by one score, but it took a team as spectacularly bad as Iowa State for Iowa to beat them by more than two scores. As amazing as it was to watch Norm Parker’s defense suffocated the vaunted Georgia Tech triple option attack in the Orange Bowl, seeing Iowa in the conversation with Alabama and Texas for a national championship berth would have been satisfying on an entirely other level.
Still, one cannot diminish the impact of Iowa’s 2009 squad. The only Hawkeye team to win a BCS/New Year’s Six bowl during the Ferentz era, this team captured the imagination of the entire state and invigorated the fanbase in a way that few teams have before or after. The 2002 team was flashier, the 2004 team was more improbable, and the 2015 team will forever be associated with it’s 12-0 start. But there always be a special place in fans’ hearts and the program’s history for Kirk Ferentz’s 2009 team, the most exciting, most captivating and (I’ll say it), the best Hawkeyes squad of the Ferentz era.
And if you disagree, well I’ll just let Ricky Stanzi tell you what you can do with that opinion.