Iowa brings momentum into Saturday night’s Big Ten opener vs. Badgers
If Kirk Ferentz had a bounce in his step heading into his 20th season in charge of the Iowa football program, he didn’t notice it.
But his boss, athletic director Gary Barta, sure did. Barta told reporters at the Big Ten Media event in July that he’d never seen Ferentz “more focused, more energized and more excited and ready to go.”
Ferentz said earlier this week he read about Barta’s observation at the time but didn’t give it much thought. However, the longest-tenured coach in FBS could understand why he was giving off the vibe that he was looking forward to the 2018 season.
“I’ve liked this team. It’s been a fun team to be around since January,” said Ferentz, who turned 63 over the summer. “I don’t know how good we are as a team right now. But I think we have a group of guys that are really trying hard and working hard. So when you’re around a bunch of athletes that are trying to do things a little bit better and like each other and respect each other, you can’t help but feel good about that.”
Ferentz and the Hawkeyes will get an indication about how good they are on Saturday night when they host the University of Wisconsin football team at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.
The No. 18 Badgers (2-1) have won in their past four trips to Iowa City but are coming off a stunning 24-21 home loss to BYU. The Hawkeyes (3-0), meanwhile, have opened the season with double-digit victories over Northern Illinois, Iowa State and Northern Iowa.
The Hawkeyes came into the season having to replace a pair of All-Americans — cornerback Josh Jackson and linebacker Josey Jewell — on defense.
So far, that unit has looked dominant. Iowa has allowed 24 points through three games and hasn’t surrendered a touchdown in the first three quarters this season.
The strength of the unit is a veteran defensive line that includes seniors Parker Hesse, Sam Brincks and Matt Nelson, along with junior Anthony Nelson.
Iowa is so good up front that sophomore Anthony Epenesa, a five-star recruit in 2017, can’t even crack the starting lineup. Epenesa has proven to be a dynamic pass rusher and already has piled up 8½ sacks in his career, including a team-leading four this season.
“I think (Iowa’s defense) is at its best when that D-line is at its best,” UW offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said. “You’ve got a mature, very experienced defensive line. I think they make everyone look better because of it. I think they’re playing really well together.”
The bigger question for Iowa on Saturday night will be whether it can crack UW’s defense.
The Iowa offense has gone 10 consecutive quarters without a touchdown against the Badgers dating to late in the second quarter of a 10-6 victory over UW at Camp Randall Stadium in 2015.
The Hawkeyes were held to three field goals in a 17-9 home loss to the Badgers in 2016 and scored their only points last season on a pair of interception returns for touchdowns by Jackson, who’s now with the Green Bay Packers.
Iowa managed only 66 yards on 50 plays last season against UW and went 0-for-13 on third down.
Nate Stanley, a junior quarterback from Menomonie, is in his second season as a starter and has connected with tight end Noah Fant for 13 touchdowns since the start of the 2017 season.
The Hawkeyes’ running game could get a boost this week if sophomore tailback Ivory Kelly-Martin returns from an ankle injury that has caused him to miss the past two games.
Junior Toren Young, a former Monona Grove standout, has taken over as the starter with Kelly-Martin out of the lineup.
“He’s a tremendous young man, first and foremost,” Ferentz said of Young, who is averaging 5.4 yards per carry. “He’s a good, hard-nosed player. He’s not fancy or a three-cut guy or that type of thing. But he’s a tough, hard-nosed straight ahead-type guy and for us there’s a role for that.”
A win over UW would set up Iowa nicely in the race for the Big Ten West Division title. It’s possible the only time the Hawkeyes will be an underdog the remainder of the regular season will be when they play at Penn State on Oct. 27.
Ferentz, of course isn’t looking that far ahead. Not with the Badgers, who have won five of the past six meetings between the teams, coming to town.
“We’re going to learn a lot about our football team,” he said.