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A Look Back: Ranking Iowa's Season Openers Under Ferentz

Breaking down Iowa's history of season openers under Kirk Ferentz: the good, the bad, and the very ugly. (1999 Nebraska just scored again.)

This was good.  Not much else in Iowa's 2012 season opener was.
This was good. Not much else in Iowa's 2012 season opener was.
Jonathan Daniel

The 2013 season is fast approaching, marking the 15th year since Kirk Ferentz arrived at Iowa.  During that time, Iowa's played a lot of season openers -- 14 to be exact (hooray for math!) -- wherein they've faced a wide range of teams on the quality spectrum.  They've played a few very good teams and a few very bad teams, and a bunch of teams that sit somewhere in-between those two poles.  As we get ready for Iowa's 2013 season opener against Northern Illinois, let's take a look back at all of Iowa's season openers under Ferentz, ranking them from the most challenging to the most Downy-soft.

1) 1999: NEBRASKA 42, IOWA 7

OPPONENT: Ranked #5 at time of game,  Ended season 12-1, Big 12 Champions, Fiesta Bowl Champions, ranked #3.

IOWA: This was Ferentz's first year in charge at Iowa and, in case you've forgotten, Iowa was not very good that year. They were coming off an ugly 3-8 season in Hayden Fry's final year in Iowa City... and then things got worse.  Iowa went 1-10 in 1999, with the one win coming in a 24-0 win over Northern Illinois.  They went 0-8 in the Big Ten and only three of the losses were by fewer than a touchdown.  Michigan State (49-3), Ohio State (41-11), and Wisconsin (41-3) could essentially name the score when they played Iowa that year.

WHAT HAPPENED: A very bad Iowa team played a very good Nebraska team -- what do you think happened?  Nebraska crushed Iowa and held them to 57 yards rushing and 169 yards of total offense.  Iowa went over 25 minutes of game-time before getting a first down.  In the post-game comments afterward, the Nebraska players and coaches seem most upset about not being able to keep their shutout for the entire game.  This was a gruesome mismatch on paper and it proved to be just as ugly in reality.  This was easily the toughest team Iowa has played in a season opener under Ferentz (the Cornhuskers were probably one narrow loss at Texas away from playing for a national championship that year) and also the worst loss Iowa's suffered in an opener under Ferentz.

FUN FACT: Frank Solich was fired by Nebraska four years after this season, despite averaging over 9 wins a pop in that stretch and playing in a national championship game.  Luckily, they had a good replacement lined up.

2) 2000: KANSAS STATE 27, IOWA 7

OPPONENT: Ranked #8 at time of game.  Ended season 11-3, Big 12 North Champions, Cotton Bowl Champions, ranked #9.

IOWA: The 2000 Iowa team was improved from the 1999 squad that just got manhandled by several teams, but they still weren't good.  Much of Iowa's improvement in 2000 manifested itself at the end of the year, when Iowa won 2 of its last 3 games (including a spectacular upset of then-#12 Northwestern) and had a pair of tight losses (13-7, 27-24) to Wisconsin and Minnesota.  Progress was being made but Iowa was still overmatched a lot in 2000.

WHAT HAPPENED: That said, the '00 team put up a much better fight in a season opener against a top-10 Big XII opponent than the '99 squad was able to do.  The Iowa defense bent a lot (K-State ran up 428 yards of offense, including 250 through the air and 178 on the ground), but they managed to avoid breaking too much, thanks to three K-State turnovers.  Ladell Betts scored a touchdown midway through the third quarter that cut K-State's lead to 17-7 and gave Iowa at least a flicker of hope in the game; not bad when Iowa entered the game a 28-point underdog.  But the offense was ultimately unable to do enough to sustain hope -- 156 yards of offense (including just 76 passing yards) isn't going to win very many games.  Still, Iowa looked a bit more competitive in this opener, which was also the Eddie Robinson Kickoff Classic and played in Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, and by the end of the season they were definitely more competitive.

FUN FACT: This game was the last time Iowa played an opponent from a BCS conference in its season opener.

3) 2003: IOWA 21, MIAMI (OH) 3

OPPONENT: Unranked at the start of the season. Ended season 13-1, MAC Champions, GMAC Bowl Champions, ranked 10th.

IOWA: The 2003 Iowa team, like most sequels, was inferior to its predecessor, the much-praised 2002 squad that ripped through the Big Ten (minus a few hiccups against Penn State and Purdue, of course) on its way to an 8-0 conference record, an 11-1 overall record, and a spot in the Orange Bowl.  The 2003 squad wasn't as good, especially on offense, where things tended to bog down whenever Robert Gallery wasn't able to clear out half of the opposing defensive line to let Fred Russell gobble up yards on the ground, but it was not without its charms.  For one, the defense was just beastly, with guys like Chad Greenway, Abdul Hodge, and Sean Considine becoming starters, Matt Roth becoming an every-down player, and Bob Sanders having a strong (if injury-affected) senior campaign.  They dropped three games in B1G play, but still clawed their way to 10 wins by the end of the season, thanks to a Outback Bowl mollywhopping of Florida that gave them a second straight #8 finish in the polls.

WHAT HAPPENED: For my money, the 2003 Miami (OH) team is the best MAC team ever.  After losing this game to Iowa, they ran the table (13 straight wins) and only two of those wins were close, a 42-37 road win over Cincinnati and a 38-33 road win over Kent State.  That game was also one of only two among their 13 wins in which they scored fewer than 41 points.  The RedHawk offense was triggered by Big Ben, who completed 69% of his passes (342/495), threw for 4486 yards, and had 37 TDs to 10 INT.  He was very good.   Their offense was very good.  And Iowa completely shut them down: 4 sacks, 4 INT, 3 points.  As Matt Roth so famously said:

FUN FACT: Miami (OH) was mounting a Heisman campaign for Big Ben prior to this game.  Oops.


OPPONENT: Unranked at the start of the season. Ended season 12-2, Mid-American Conference Champions, lost in Orange Bowl, ranked #22.

IOWA: BREAKING NEWS: The 2012 Iowa team was not very good.  After starting out 4-2, Iowa imploded in gruesome fashion, ending the year on a 6-game losing streak.  The offense was one of the worst in decades and James Vandenberg had one of the worst senior seasons in recent memory.  In hindsight, his performance in this game was somewhat prescient of the year to come: 21/33, 129 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT.  This was not a good Iowa team and unlike the 2000 squad discussed above, they got worse as the season went along (partly as a result of injuries, admittedly).

WHAT HAPPENED: Iowa tried to match NIU touchdowns with field goals for a while (shockingly, this didn't exactly work, although Mike Meyer did make 4/5 attempts, including a 50-yarder in the fourth quarter), before Greg Davis busted out one of his best play calls of the entire season to spring Damon Bullock for the game-winning 23-yard TD run.  Iowa's offense spent most of the game locked in a quagmire, which again proved to be prescient for the season to come.  The defense did a fine job of containing NIU QB Jordan Lynch, though, aside from the broken play that led to his 73-yard TD scamper in the third quarter.

FUN FACT: RC Cola is the official soft drink of Soldier Field, a fact which befuddles me now just as much as it did a year ago.

5) 2009: IOWA 17, UNI 16

OPPONENT: Ended season 7-4, no FCS playoffs

IOWA: Only Iowa fans who also habitually abuse bath salts (and I hope the Venn diagram overlap of those two groups is small) would have suspected that this game would spur Iowa to a 9-0 start, a spot in the top-10, and eventually an Orange Bowl triumph.  The 2009 Iowa team was both lucky and good, at least until Ricky Stanzi got Wooten'd in the Northwestern game.  But they ended up going 11-2 and winning the Orange Bowl and provided Iowa fans with a season full of unforgettable memories (and near-cardiac arrests).  All in all, not too shabby.

WHAT HAPPENED: Nothing much.  Just a ho-hum game.  Or not.  Iowa fell behind 13-3 early in the third quarter, before Ricky Stanzi was able to wake the Iowa offense out of its torpor and lead two scoring drives to give Iowa a 17-13 lead early in the fourth quarter.  Unfortunately, Iowa was unable to get any insurance points (one subsequent drive ended in a turnover on downs at the UNI 31 when Adam Robinson was stuffed on a 4th-and-1 run) or run out the clock (they got the ball again with 4:26 to play but were forced to punt with 2:14 to go).  UNI got the ball at their own 8-yard line with just over two minutes to play and managed to drive to the Iowa 23-yard line with 0:07 remaining, which is when things went a little loopy:

(click to embiggen)

EAT IT, BILLY HALLGREN.  That's right: Iowa blocked not one, but TWO makeable field goals that would have won the game for UNI in the final seconds.  Broderick Binns used his Go-Go Gadget arms to get a hand on the first kick, while Jeremiha Hunter (who had failed to recover the ball after the first block, thanks to some erroneous instructions from his teammates) got a paw on the second kick.  NEVER A DOUBT.

FUN FACT: Seriously, two consecutive blocked field goals.  You may never see an ending like that again.


OPPONENT: Ended season 2-10.

IOWA: It was the year of JC6.  If 2006 was a bottom-falling-out year (Iowa lost 5 of 6 to close the season and limped to an undeserved Alamo Bowl berth), 2007 was a stop-and-start year.  After opening the season with a pair of wins, Iowa lost 4 in a row (including heartbreakers at Iowa State and Wisconsin), then won 4 of 5 before crapping the bed in the season finale against Western Michigan.  Until 2012, the 2007 offense had no competition for "worst of the KF era" (excluding the start-up offenses of '99 and '00) and, sadly, the two offenses go neck-and-neck in terms of futility.  Christensen struggled mightily (though a poor offensive line and a wide receiver corps ravaged by injuries and a lack of talent/experience contributed to his struggles) and Iowa wasted the senior years of Albert Young and Damian Sims, two of the last running backs to actually last that long at Iowa.

WHAT HAPPENED: I struggled with where to place this game.  NIU was not a very good team (it was Joe Novak's final year at the helm and he might have stayed a bit too long) and, purely in terms of final record (2-10), was the worst team Iowa has played in a season opener under Ferentz.  While this particular game was never really in that much doubt (NIU only threatened to score a touchdown once the entire game, on a drive right after halftime), it also wasn't a cakewalk like the rest of the games on this list.  Iowa only mustered 16 points in this game, their lowest total in an opener since the days of playing Nebraska and Kansas State in openers.  In hindsight, this was a great sign that the Iowa offense in 2007 was going to have Issues.  Iowa opened the game with a 3-and-out and actually punted on their first four possessions.  Their first touchdown was set up by a 55-yard punt return by Andy Brodell.  The offense had one really good drive (a 95-yard effort that resulted in Iowa's second touchdown of the game), but otherwise they did a whole lot of nothin' in this game, although they did rack up 250 yards on the ground between Albert Young and Damian Sims.

FUN FACT: No team scored fewer points (16) against NIU that year than Iowa, although Temple matched Iowa's output.  Six teams scored over 30 points against the Huskies, including Toledo, who put up a 70-spot on them.

7) 2006: IOWA 41, MONTANA 7

OPPONENT: Ended season 12-2, Big Sky Conference Champions, lost in semifinals of NCAA FCS playoffs

IOWA: As noted above, 2006 was a bottom-falls-out year for Iowa.  Things started crumbling during the primetime loss to Ohio State in the most-hyped Iowa game in years (decades?), but the warning klaxons really started going off in a road loss to Indiana.  The absolute nadir was probably the listless home loss to Northwestern, after which Ferentz berated the presence of a bunch of "fat cats" on the team.  Good times.

WHAT HAPPENED: In 2006, the NCAA officially expanded the college football regular season to 12 games; like many teams, Iowa filled that spot by bringing in an FCS team to collect a big paycheck and take a beating.  While the 2009 UNI team obviously gave Iowa its biggest scare against FCS opponents, the 2006 Montana team might have been the best FCS team Iowa's played in a season opener under Ferentz.  The Grizz stormed through the FCS ranks after losing to Iowa, winning 12 in a row (in mostly blowout fashion) before falling to UMass in the FCS semifinals.  As for this game, Iowa won comfortably, but the score was inflated by 17 fourth quarter points by Iowa.  Montana actually scored a TD to make it 17-7 midway through the third quarter.  Happily, Iowa answered with an immediate TD drive of their own to push the lead to 24-7 and effectively wrap up the game.  Still, the offense wasn't exactly sharp (Drew Tate went just 15/28 in the game) and the most memorable thing about the offensive performance was the emergence of a true freshman receiver named Dominique Douglas (3 catches, 43 yards, 1 TD).  I wonder what ever happened to him.

FUN FACT: I'm still bitter about the fact that Montana didn't bring their mascot, Monte, a leather jacket-wearing, motorcycle-riding dude-in-a-grizzly-bear-outfit to Kinnick Stadium for this game.  If we're paying you half a million dollars to show up, you can at least bring your damn mascot, too.

8) 2008: IOWA 46, MAINE 3

OPPONENT: Ended season 8-5, lost in first round of Division I-AA playoffs

IOWA: Iowa entered 2008 looking to erase the bad taste of the 2007 campaign (and the 2006 campaign, for that matter).  They got off to a fine start with this game.  They hit a pothole with three straight losses after beginning the season with three straight wins, but they were a truly different team in the second half of the season than the first. After an ugly 16-13 loss to Michigan State, Iowa ripped off wins in six of its last seven games that year, including blowout beatdowns of Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and South Carolina.  Oh, and they beat #3 Penn State on a last-second field goal, too.  You might remember that.  By the end of the season the '08 Iowa team was definitely one of those proverbial "better than the record indicates" teams.

WHAT HAPPENED: Shonn Greene happened.  Iowa entered 2008 with a big question mark at running back; they ended the season with a big star at running back.  Greene ripped off 50 yards in the first quarter, including 15 on his first carry of the game.  In hindsight, that was a pretty good omen, yeah?  He ended the game with 109 yards, the first of 13-straight 100+ yard performances for Shonn that year.  The other most notable thing from this game was an honest-to-God QB rotation: Jake Christensen started the game and played the first three series, but Ricky Stanzi played several series as well, a clear indication that JC6 wasn't necessarily going to remain the starter in '08, despite starting every game the previous year.

FUN FACT: Maine's nickname is the Black Bears, continuing Iowa's trend of playing FCS foes with ursine-themed nicknames.

9) 2011: IOWA 34, TENNESSEE TECH 7

OPPONENT: Ended season 7-4, Ohio Valley Conference Co-Champions, Lost in first round of NCAA Division I-AA playoffs

IOWA: Iowa was just kind of "there" in 2011.  They won some, they lost some, they ended with a 7-6 record, which seemed about right.  The core of the team that had led Iowa to 27 wins from 2008-10 was mostly gone and Iowa found itself beginning the rebuilding process (where it still finds itself today).  Marvin McNutt and Marcus Coker had pretty excellent individual campaigns for Iowa and James Vandenberg had a good season statistically, but this was a case of the parts being greater than the whole.

WHAT HAPPENED: Iowa struggled out of the gate (just 3 points in the first quarter), then erupted for 24 points in the second quarter, thanks to a pair of big plays, an 88-yard TD pass from Vandenberg to McNutt and an 89-yard pick-six from Shaun Prater.  At 27-0, the game was effectively over as a competitive contest.  Aside from those big plays (and the weather delay), the most memorable thing about the game may have been the debut of true freshman running back Mika'il McCall, who ran for 61 yards on 9 carries before AIRBHG struck him down with a broken ankle in the first quarter.

FUN FACT: The game was delayed for 84 minutes due to inclement weather, the first of two times that season in which an Iowa game was delayed due to an attack from the heavens (the second being the Skynet rises attack of ESPN's aerial camera on Marvin McNutt in the Insight Bowl).

10) 2001: IOWA 51, KENT STATE 0

OPPONENT: Ended season 6-5.

IOWA: Outside of 2002 and parts of the 2005 and 2008 campaigns, 2001 was probably the last time the Iowa offense was pretty damn fun under Kirk Ferentz.  Whether that was because of the talent involved (doubtful, considering Kyle McCann was a featured part of this unit; no offense to McCann, who was a solid enough QB, but definitely not a standout) or because defenses hadn't yet figured out Ken O'Keefe's bag o' tricks, I dunno, but do you realize Iowa scored 40+ points in 5 games in 2001 and topped 50 in two of those games?  Only the 2002 Iowa offense did more damage to scoreboards.  Anyway.  2001 was the year where Ferentz's turnaround began falling into place: they made it back to a bowl game with a 6-5 record (4-4 in B1G play).  The glory days were still to come, but 2001 was still Iowa's most successful season since 1996 or 1997.

WHAT HAPPENED: Iowa entered the game with some DRAAAAMA; starting QB contender Jon "The Feutjer" Beutjer quit the team the Tuesday before the game, thanks in part to a fight with teammate Sam Aiello over the cable bill (note: when you're a scrawny quarterback and your roommate is a hulking offensive lineman with some anger management issues, if he tells you to pay the cable bill, YOU SHOULD PAY THE CABLE BILL).  There was no drama in the game itself, though: four different running backs scored touchdowns, the Iowa defense skunked the Golden Flashes, and Brad Banks made his first appearance in black-and-gold (and led a glowing Ferentz to call him "magical").

FUN FACT: Aaron Greving scored touchdowns on three straight carries, which is pretty wacky and tied a national record.

11) 2002: IOWA 57, AKRON 21

OPPONENT: Ended season 4-8.

IOWA: Iowa was very, very good in 2002.  11-2 overall, 8-0 in the Big Ten, gobs of points, Heisman runner-up, etc.  You might remember them.

WHAT HAPPENED: In my memory, the 2002 season always starts with Iowa's escape act on the road against Miami (OH).  But that's erroneous: Iowa began the season with a home game against Akron and they smashed the Zips.  Iowa opened the game with a 37-point first quarter (the highest-scoring quarter in Iowa history).  They had 51 points at halftime.  They probably could have pushed for 80 in this game if they'd wanted to.  Fred Russell had 170 yards and 2 TD.  Jermelle Lewis had 123 yards and 2 TD.  As a team, Iowa averaged 8.4 ypc on 45 carries while amassing 376 yards.  Iowa pretty much did whatever the hell they wanted in this game.

FUN FACT: Akron was quarterbacked by Charlie Frye, continuing the trend of Iowa facing future NFL signal callers in their season openers.

12) 2004: IOWA 39, KENT STATE 7

OPPONENT: Ended season 5-6.

IOWA: Like 2009, was a rollercoaster season full of thrills, chills, and more unforgettable memories than you can shake a big stick at.  Unlike 2009, it did not begin with a heart-stopping game decided in the closing seconds in wildly improbable fashion.  It was the first true display of AIRBHG's power -- and his wrath.  In the face of RB armaggeddon, Drew Tate and a ferocious defense (as well as some spectacular special teams) carried Iowa to a 10-2 record, including a bowl win that was itself a heart-stopping game decided in the closing seconds in wildly improbable fashion.  Circle of life or something.

WHAT HAPPENED: Iowa, sporting nifty throwback uniforms honoring the famed 1939 Ironman team of Nile Kinnick, used stifling defense to cruise to an easy win in this opener.  Iowa held Kent State to 110 total yards of offense, including -13 yards rushing.  That 2004 defense was something else.  The game was also notable for the debut of one Drew Tate as Iowa's starting quarterback, although it wasn't the most spectacular of debuts (13/22, 136 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT).  He was saving the magic for later games.  Iowa also had a mostly full complement of running backs available at this point in 2004, which was the last time we'd be able to say that until 2005.  Iowa led 23-0 before Kent State got on the board with a 99-yard pick six (ouch).

FUN FACT: The starting QB for Kent State in this game was supposed to be Joshua Cribbs (yep, that Josh Cribbs), but he was suspended for the game after getting busted for marijuana possession in the offseason.

13) 2005: IOWA 56, BALL STATE 0

OPPONENT: Ended season 4-7

IOWA: Iowa was hot and cold in 2005.  When they were good, they were very good: all seven of their wins had double-digit winning margins, highlighted by a 52-28 beatdown of Minnesota that featured Ed Hinkel catching four touchdown passes and tying a team record.  Unfortunately, when they were bad, they were pretty bad, as they were in blowout losses to Iowa State and Ohio State and metldown-y losses to Michigan and Northwestern.  As much as any KF team, 2005 may have been the one that squandered its potential the most, as it definitely had 10-win potential.

WHAT HAPPENED: Ball State, coached by current Michigan head man Brady Hoke, suspended 13 players (including 7 starters) the Friday before this game.  That was a bit of a problem.  Iowa led 28-0 after the first quarter and scored touchdowns on seven of its first eight drives (including a "drive" that consisted of a punt return score); the only drive that didn't end with a touchdown ended because of a fumble.  It was 49-0 at halftime and only Ferentz's willingness to call off the dogs in the second half kept the score from being uglier than 56-0.

FUN FACT: Four different Iowa running backs scored TDs in this game, including Albert Young, Sam Brownlee (!), Marcus Schnoor (!!), and Shonn Greene (!!!).


OPPONENT: Ended season 2-9

IOWA: A season of missed opportunities and broken dreams.  This post is already over 4000 words long; I think I can spare you the gory details of Iowa's disappointing 2010 campaign.

WHAT HAPPENED: This wasn't Iowa's biggest win in a season opener under Ferentz (that would still be the 56-0 demolition job of Ball State), but it was probably the worst team Iowa played in a season opener.  The 2007 NIU team was probably the worst FBS team Iowa's played in an opener (they finished 2-10), but the 2010 EIU team was a bad FCS team -- the Fightin' Spoos finished 2-9.  Iowa didn't exactly have trouble with EIU -- they led 21-0 after the first quarter and answered EIU's only TD of the game with a TD drive of their own to make the score 28-7 -- but they didn't exactly run roughshod over a team that wasn't very good, which is somewhat surprising considering that the 2010 Iowa team had more talent than all but a few Iowa teams under Ferentz.

FUN FACT: DAS PAKIBOMB scored the third and final TD of his Iowa career in this game, off a blocked punt. Two of his three career TDs at Iowa came in season openers (he also had a rushing TD against Maine in 2008).

And that's the list.  After Saturday, we'll have one more season opener to add to the mix.  Where will the 2013 NIU game rank?  Hard to say until it's played (and, also, until we see how NIU's season plays out), but I would be surprised if didn't rank somewhere in the 3-4-5 range.  This NIU team clearly looks better than any of the teams in the current 5-14 slots.  The only question is how they stack up next to two of the most accomplished MAC teams of all-time in the 2003 Miami (OH) team and the 2012 Northern Illinois squad.

Iowa enters this game with a 12-game winning streak in season openers, a streak that's been seriously threatened only twice (last year and in the '09 UNI game).  That streak is nice, but it's also in large part a function of scheduling: when you stop scheduling FBS opponents (especially preseason top ten opponents) and only schedule teams from the MAC and FCS ranks (and only play in Iowa City or at neutral sites), well, you should rack up a lot of wins.  The latest threat to Iowa's streak again hails from the MAC, but at least based on last year's accomplishments for both teams and the hype around each team this year, this certainly looks like perhaps Iowa's most difficult challenge in a season opener in several years.  On Saturday, we'll find out if they're up to that challenge.