Nov. 22, 2011
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IOWA CITY, Iowa — It has been 11 years since the University of Iowa and Nebraska have played in football. It has been at least that long since UI head coach Kirk Ferentz — during the same press conference — has referred to himself as Willie off the Pickle Boat, his starting quarterback as Opie Taylor, and his leading rusher as a Buckingham Palace soldier.
It was a focused and frequently festive Ferentz on Tuesday when he met with media for a weekly briefing inside the Hayden Fry Football Complex. The Hawkeyes (7-4 overall, 4-3 Big Ten Conference) conclude the regular season Friday, Nov. 25, at No. 22 Nebraska (8-3, 4-3). Both teams will play in a postseason bowl game.
Ferentz was offensive line coach for the Hawkeyes in 1981 when they opened the season with a 10-7 win against Nebraska inside Kinnick Stadium. That game marked the last victory for Iowa in a series that the Cornhuskers lead 26-12-3.
“I had dark hair back then,” Ferentz said with a smile. “I remember that game. That was my first game. I was basically like Willie off the pickle boat. I had no idea where I was or what was going on.”
The teams have played three times since, with Nebraska winning 42-7 in 1982, 42-7 in 1999 and 42-13 in 2000. The meeting in 1999 was the first game for Ferentz as head coach of the Hawkeyes. He has 96 wins under his belt since then, and victory No. 97 on Friday would mean his UI team would win a second consecutive road game and knock off a second ranked team this season.
“It’s one tough game to another,” Ferentz said. “That’s the nature of this conference; that’s a great thing. We’re all really pleased about Nebraska joining the league. It has made us a stronger league, but with that strength comes more challenge, and this is certainly going to be a challenge for us.”
“I had dark hair back then. I remember that game. That was my first game. I was basically like Willie off the pickle boat. I had no idea where I was or what was going on.”
UI head football coach
Since the Heroes Game is played Friday, another challenge will be having one less day to prepare for an opponent. But whatever happens on the Memorial Stadium playing turf, the Hawkeyes will have no excuses.
“So far we’re comfortable, but we’ve only been out there one day,” Ferentz said. “Today is really like a Wednesday for us. We still got a lot of work to do. But we won’t have any excuses Friday.”
Ferentz said the Hawkeyes are in a good place emotionally and for the most part, the injury report is clean.
“If we don’t play well, it won’t be because of this week,” Ferentz said. “I think we’re in good shape there and I think our players are in good mental spirit. The other good thing is, it’s about as healthy as we’ve been really since going into that Michigan game when we started to turn the corner a little bit.”
The Hawkeyes have won two of their last three games, including a 24-16 victory over Michigan. While the same Wolverine team defeated Nebraska, 45-17, last week, the Cornhuskers are the only team in the Big Ten Conference to defeat Legends Division champion Michigan State (24-3 on Oct. 29).
“There’s only one team sitting at home now knowing they’re playing in Indianapolis,” Ferentz said of the Spartans. “(Nebraska) beat them pretty thoroughly a couple weeks ago, so that’s about all I have to say about Nebraska. It’s going to be a challenge.”
So how do the monikers Opie Taylor and the Buckingham Palace soldier fit in?
When describing the toughness of quarterback James Vandenberg, Ferentz said looks are deceiving.
“Yeah, he looks a bit like Opie (Taylor from the 1960s comedy, The Andy Griffith Show) and acts like him; I think it’s all an act,” Ferentz said. “He’s a nitty gritty, tough guy. There’s no question in my mind. I think all his teammates have always seen him that way.”
About quiet and stoic running back Marcus Coker, who has rushed for 1,297 yards and 14 touchdowns, Ferentz said:
“Marcus doesn’t give you the Opie stuff; Marcus is kind of like the Buckingham Palace soldier, he gives you no reaction at all. Evidenced by what he’s done this year already on the field, he’s just a very tough, tough minded and physically-tough guy.”
In regards to the strength of Iowa’s 2011 Big Ten football schedule, Ferentz said the Hawkeyes are still seeing red, even though Wisconsin and Ohio State aren’t on the slate.
“We traded one team from the east that wears red uniforms that is really good, and picked up one from the west that is really good and wears red uniforms,” Ferentz said. “There will be a lot of red in there. There was up in Wisconsin.”
Playing in a venue the size of 81,091-seat Memorial Stadium will be a challenge, but certainly not impossible for an Iowa program that won at Penn State in 2009 and at Michigan in 2010.
“Luckily we have played on the road in those big environments,” UI receiver Marvin McNutt, Jr., said. “So hopefully it doesn’t affect us that we play in front of a big crowd or a loud crowd or a crowd that brings a lot of energy.”
Hawkeye senior cornerback Shaun Prater attended Omaha (Neb.) Central High School and eagerly accepted a scholarship from Iowa over the home-state Cornhuskers.
“I’ve been watching these guys since I’ve been growing up,” Prater said of the Cornhuskers. “I have all my family members (in Nebraska) so it’s a pretty big deal. This is a true honor to be able to cap off the regular season playing against the Cornhuskers.”
Nebraska is a natural fit in the Big Ten in many ways, including the personnel it has at the quarterback position. Cornhusker sophomore Taylor Martinez has thrown for 1,810 yards and rushed for 817 — a la Denard Robinson of Michigan, MarQueis Gray of Minnesota, Russell Wilson of Wisconsin and Dan Persa of Northwestern — to name four.
“It seems like it’s a broken record. It’s interesting, in our conference we have some quarterbacks that are really electrifying and dangerous,” Ferentz said. “(Martinez) certainly fits in that category. He can basically hurt you on any play of the game. He’s really an excellent, dangerous player.”
The Hawkeyes will continue to be thin at running back. Jordan Canzeri (injury) and Mika’il McCall (violation of team policy) will not travel to Lincoln.