Of all the trophies Iowa plays for, I’m not sure that there’s one that’s worse than “The Heroes” trophy. Don’t get me wrong, I can appreciate the sentiment behind honoring the acts of heroic individuals from each state, and I’m even okay with the corporate sponsorship, but there’s nothing that says “college football rivalry” less than some ginned up, saccharine, feel-good story created by a PR firm somewhere in the marketing Mecca that is West Des Moines.
College rivalries are built on hatred (even if it’s hatred that manifests but once a year), not marketing gimmicks. Rivalries, and the trophies associated with them, are supposed to have history and a deeper meaning. Floyd of Rosedale exists for a very specific reason, not just because two Governors wanted to promote each state’s respective pork industry. Money, as it does with so many other things, ruined something that could have been great, well money and Shawn Eichorst when he decided to “evaluate where Iowa was as a program” and fire Bo Pelini.
This year’s edition of the Heroes Game had plenty of hate, but turned out as so many have in recent memory, with Iowa bringing home a trophy that had taken a brief sabbatical in Lincoln. Saturday’s win leaves Iowa with 3 of their 4 travelling trophies right where they belong, in the trophy case at the Stew and Lenore Hansen Football Performance Center, and one being abused at the home of PJ Fleck. One thing that no one can deny is that this Iowa team wins games. They may not win pretty, but they don’t ask how, they ask how many and 10 regular season wins is one hell of an accomplishment, extending Nebraska’s Bowl-less streak to 8 seasons is just the cherry on top.
Now, this Iowa team has had quite the year and the heroes that we expected to have at the start of it, are far from the heroes as we near the end. So for my last column of the regular season, I’m giving out some 100% made-up-by-me awards.
(Given to the Iowa player no one expected to lead the team in rushing)
Coming in to 2023 every single Iowa fan was fully expecting Kaleb Johnson to not just be the feature back, but to be Iowa’s next 1000 yard rusher (a feat achieved only 11 times in Kirk’s 25 years). After a stellar freshman campaign that saw him amass 779 yards on the ground and solidify himself as RB1, it seemed like a no-brainer that he’d have a breakout year.
What we got instead was LeShon Williams nearly doubling his output from 2022 and reasserting his claim on the RB1 spot. Injuries certainly played a role in the drama and KJ2 is certainly the back with the highest ceiling, but LW4 showed Iowa fans that he wasn’t going to give up his starting role easily. He may not have KJ2’s top end speed, but he’s proven that he can pair power and shiftiness to turn something into nothing (and man did that show up against Nebraska).
The Thwoomp (it’s an onomatopoeia)
(Given to the Iowa player most likely to be shot out of a cannon)
Listen, when you play in the same defensive backfield as Cooper DeJean, you’re not going to get a lot of attention. When you take over the role that has been recently held by NFL standouts like Amani Hooker, Dane Belton, and Geno Stone the fans might expect a bit of a step backwards, but if you’re Sebastian Castro, you say “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the anchor of the defensive backfield was not Cooper DeJean. Yes, Cooper is an amazing football player and a freak athlete, but while he was holding down his side of the field (and generally making an opponent’s best receiver a complete non-factor), Castro was flying all over it, picking off passes, hurrying QBs and being the difference maker that we thought he might become after the second half of 2022.
For a guy most often mentioned as an afterthought to Coop and X, Castro finished the regular season 4th on the team in tackles (52), 2nd in TFL (8.0, tied with Nick Jackson), 1st in INTs (including the teams only pick six), and 2nd in Passes Defensed, and he was the only member of the secondary to record a sack. That’s an incredible stat line for a guy playing a hybrid linebacker/safety. The guy was a human highlight reel all season, but I’m trying to keep this to one video per award, so I went with the tackle that I though best captured Castro’s savvy and explosiveness:
(Given to the Iowa player that no one saw coming)
Ethan Hurkett was not on ANYONE’s list of Iowa players that would step in to replace Lukas Van Ness on the right side of Iowa’s defensive line, and while he certainly did not match Hercules’ sack total (he has yet to notch a sack this season) he finishes the regular season 5th on the team in tackles (49), 4th in TFLs, and made, arguably, two of the biggest defensive plays of the season (sealing the win against ISU, and a clutch interception that led to the game winning field goal last week).
A homegrown kid from Cedar Rapids Xavier, Hurkett more than tripled his tackles from last season and has become one of the mainstays of the DL. Going into the season most of us expected to see Deontae Craig have a breakout year and be the next great Iowa pass rusher. Craig has had a solid year but, to this observer, he’s been overshadowed by the Senior from Marion.
(Given to the Iowa player that makes Special Teams a weapon)
I don’t have to spend much time explaining how much Tory Taylor means to this team. “Punting is Winning” may be tongue-in-cheek but having a weapon like #9 to flip the field is what allowed this Iowa team to be successful this year, with an average punter opposing offenses aren’t faced with long drives on nearly every possession, and with an offense as bad as ours, field position means everything.
Tory Taylor is the reason Iowa beat Wisconsin, he’s the reason we beat Illinois, and he’s the reason that we’ve been in a position to win every other low-scoring game this year. Without Tory Taylor, this team does not have 10 wins, and that’s a hill I will die on.
The 3rd Man
(Given to the Iowa player that steps in, and steps up)
It’s not very often that a team loses its top three players at a single position and Iowa losing its top two Tight Ends by the end of week 5 could have spelled disaster. Iowa uses its TEs in a way most other teams do not, and there’s a reason that it has become identified as TEU (aside from the fact that 3 of the top 5 NFL TEs this season played at Iowa). From Marv Cook to Sam LaPorta, Iowa has been churning out elite TEs for nearly 40 years, and losing Luke Lachey and Erick All should have been a death knell for this team. Enter Addison Ostrenga.
While Erick All managed to pull in more yards in 7 games than Ostrenga did in 10 (and still leads the team in receiving touchdowns), Ostrenga stepped in and stepped up. Aside from All, Ostrenga is the only other player on the team to have multiple receiving touchdowns, is third in receptions, and has proven to be an exceptional blocker in the run game. We don’t yet know if Lachey or All will be back in the Black & Gold next year (the odds aren’t great, especially with both being in Mel Kiper’s Top 10 TEs on the Big Board), but we do know that there’s another great Iowa TE waiting in the wings.
(Given to the Iowa player that truly embodies what it means to be an Iowa Hawkeye)
Yeah, I bet you’re all asking yourself what the hell is wrong with me, how is this not Cooper DeJean’s award? Well, Coop is going to get plenty of awards (including the B1G Defensive Back & Return Specialist of the Year awards), so I don’t think he’ll mind if I focus on some of the guys that will go slightly more unsung, like Joe Evans.
I’m not sure there’s a player on this team that better embodies Iowa Hawkeye football than Joe Evans. An unranked walk-on out of Ames High School who transitioned from LB to DE in his sophomore year and goes on to share the team lead in sacks as a Junior and a Senior, then comes back for his Super Senior year and leads the team outright. Nobody I’ve watched over the last 5 years plays harder than Joe Evans, and I can’t think of anybody better than him to put forward as an exemplar of Iowa football.
(Given to the unit that refuses to break)
The Iowa Defense
I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered a single unit that meant more to a team than Phil Parker’s defense this year. If this unit is even 5% worse, Iowa is 7-5.
- 4.03 ypp (2nd in the nation)
- 12.2 ppg (4th)
- 0.8 passing TDs per game (6th)
- 0.2 rushing TDs per game (1st, 2 given up all year)
- 16 First downs allowed per game (10th)
For most of the season Iowa had the #1 ranked defense according to ESPN’s SP+ rankings, while sporting an offense that peaked around #122. The only other P5 team with that kind of disparity was USC (3rd ranked offense, 113th ranked defense) and they finished 7-5. Defense wins championships, even if they’re only Division championships. To put it in perspective, Iowa’s defense allowed 146 points this season, USC’s defense gave up 175 points in the final FOUR weeks of the season. I can’t wait to see PAC-12 offenses come to Kinnick, The Big House, The Horseshoe, and Happy Valley next November.
4 chances from inside the 2, ‘nuff said
The AFLAC trivia question during the Nebraska game was not only particularly poignant, but it was rewritten by the end of the day (which may be a first). Prior to the 2023 Iowa Hawkeyes the most games ever won by a team averaging less than 250 yards of total offense per game was 4, and now it’s 10. Phil Parker should be given Brian Ferentz’s salary as a bonus.
Last, but certainly not least...
(Given to the player that didn’t choke when he finally got his chance to blow)
Yes, the Eminem references were flowing hot and heavy on twitter in the hours following Marshall Meeder’s game winning kick to end Nebraska’s season Saturday evening in Lincoln. The transfer kicker (brought in last minute to take Aaron Blom’s roster spot in the wake of his receiving the NCAA death penalty) did not miss his once in a lifetime opportunity. Sure, his game-winning kick barely cleared the crossbar, but it did clear the crossbar, and the rest is history. It is entirely possible that it will be the last kick of his career (we’ll see if Stevens kicks the yips against Michigan), and if so, he sure as hell went out on a high.
Nobody believes this team has a chance against Michigan next Saturday in Indy, and on balance I agree with them. The Wolverines proved that they are the cream of this year’s B1G crop with a huge win over Ohio State on Saturday in Ann Arbor. But there’s a reason they play the games, and maybe, just maybe, Iowa can drag the Wolverines down to their level and turn the game into a cage match. If so, I’d give them more than a fighter’s chance to pull it off.
Either way, this Iowa team proved to the whole CFB world that they’re never going to give up, and I can’t think of a more fitting end to a truly incredible season.
As always, GO HAWKS!!!