At the brink of a potential collapse, one football game on the 2020 schedule proved to be the pivotal juncture for Hawkeye football as a program. This particular game was a turning point that was maybe not so obvious at the time. There were many things larger than football going on within the Iowa football program and the nation as a whole in the summer of 2020. In hindsight, Iowa’s November 7th matchup against the Michigan State Spartans was a defining moment for that season, the future health of the program, and for seasons to come.
The shortened season and unavoidable variables that COVID presented for every football program made the year incredibly difficult to navigate. For Iowa, however, they were dealing with much more than a global pandemic.
In the summer prior to the 2020 season, several former Iowa football players came forward citing their experiences within the program as marginalizing. Their personal accounts revealed a culture of systemic bias and racial mistreatment directed toward players of color. Several major steps were taken leading up to the football season in an effort to rebuild different areas of the program. This began with the firing of strength coach Chris Doyle, at whom many of the allegations were directed. It also included the formation of a diversity advisory committee made up of former players of all backgrounds. The team also formed a football leadership group comprised of current players aimed to empower the student-athlete and remodel several team policies and practices. With the help of the two committees, Kirk Ferentz made substantial changes to eliminate the systemic indiscretions within the program while allowing for more player individuality.
In the wake of racial and systemic bias within the Hawkeye football program, the team came together off the field. However, things were coming up short on the gridiron. Iowa began the 2020 season 0-2 with two gut-wrenching losses to Purdue and Northwestern. The defeats came by a total of just five points and all but eliminated the Hawkeyes from divisional contention. When Iowa would lace up for the third game of the season against Michigan State, the team was preparing for what would become one of the most important football games in their recent history.
The two losses to begin the season were a result of failure to finish out the game. In West Lafayette, Iowa took a six-point lead through the middle of the fourth quarter before giving up a 72-yard touchdown drive with two minutes left. Purdue has long been one of Iowa’s most difficult opponents, and the first game of the year was another episode.
The following week at home, the Hawkeyes stormed out to a 17-point lead in the first quarter. However, the offense became stagnant, adding just one field goal in the second quarter for the remainder of the contest. Northwestern charged back, capitalizing on Iowa’s turnovers and lack of mobility. The one-point loss to Northwestern at home dropped the Hawkeyes to 0-2 for the first time since the 2000 season.
November 7th, 2020
Heading into the third weekend of the year, it would have been very easy for Iowa to continue to regress. The COVID season gave everyone an additional year of eligibility. Players could have easily chosen to opt out and rest up for the next season. Some could have considered their options at other universities. With the conference championship effectively out of reach, the next game against Michigan State would reveal the fight left in this team.
Ferentz has been dubbed “The Dean of College Football” for his consistency and staunch approach to coaching football. His message to the team each week is centered around focusing on nothing more than the opponent at hand. Ferentz always emphasizes how difficult it is to win a Big Ten Conference football game. Every victory requires substantial preparation and determination. His approach is a large reason why Iowa can show up on any given Saturday and beat teams like Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State despite being a heavy underdog. This philosophy was on clean display against Michigan State for week three of the 2020 season.
Iowa took a 21-point lead late into the second quarter before Charlie Jones returned a punt for a touchdown to make it 28-0. On the ensuing Michigan State possession, Riley Moss intercepted a pass and took it 54-yards for another score before the half. The 35-0 lead at halftime turned into a 49-7 victory. Iowa grabbed three interceptions and over 400 yards of total offense against the Spartans.
The Hawkeyes had their opportunities in the first two games of the season but failed to execute through the final whistle. Against the Spartans on that November afternoon, Iowa had their foot on the pedal for a full 60 minutes. The victory energized the team to a level that had not been seen to that point in the season. Iowa excelled in all phases of the game. Despite the adversity they had been through, the season was still an opportunity to be successful.
To close out 2020, Iowa would outscore their remaining opponents 165-76. They won their final five games by an average margin of 17.8 points, scoring 33 points per game. Tyler Goodson finished the year with 914 yards from scrimmage and seven touchdowns in just eight games. Following the season, defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon earned First-Team All-American honors. Nixon and Chauncey Golston both earned First-Team Big Ten honors at defensive line. Tory Taylor, Keith Duncan, and Jones each earned All-Big Ten honors on special teams. The 2020 football season was massively successful. Pundits around the country voiced Iowa as one of the nation’s hottest football teams heading into the new off-season.
The Pivotal Juncture for Hawkeye Football
After a summer of turmoil due to a global pandemic and instability within the program itself, Ferentz brought his football team together in a way he hadn’t before. An 0-2 start to a season can be demoralizing. Even more so when the season is cut short to begin with. It takes a unique group to look at that as an opportunity, not a setback. Looking back, the performance against Michigan State proved to be the opportunity that led the program in an upward direction. It could have very easily gone down the opposite path. Since that 49-7 victory, the Hawkeyes have a 16-4 record. They won the Big Ten West after a 10-win regular season in 2021 where they soared as high as the second-ranked team in the land. It was capped off with a New Year’s Day bowl game appearance last January.
The “what if” statements are endless when considering what a third loss to begin the 2020 season would have meant for the future of Iowa football, the stability of the program, and even Ferentz himself. Iowa made several fundamental changes to the “Iowa Way” following the events of the 2020 offseason. However, the one thing that remained constant was the mentality of Hawkeye Football. Each week provides an opportunity to become better. That November 7th home game against Michigan State made this program better in countless ways.