Nov. 29, 2013
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LINCOLN, Neb. — The challenge was issued on Black Friday in 2012. In University of Iowa football terms, it was a dim moment that Nov. 23 day as the Hawkeyes limped out of Kinnick Stadium with a 13-7 loss to Nebraska and a record of 4-8.
“This is significant,” UI linebackers coach LeVar Woods said, 371 days later. “A year ago they challenged themselves and we challenged them to move forward.”
They is in reference to the entire Hawkeye team, but specifically the senior linebackers. They are the best group of linebackers assistant Jim Reid has been around in 41 years of coaching. They combined for 28 tackles, seven tackles for loss, three pass breakups, three quarterback hurries, two sacks, two interceptions, and two forced fumbles on a sunnier Black Friday 2013, as the Hawkeyes thumped an eight-win Nebraska team on its home turf by three touchdowns.
They helped the UI secure second place in the Big Ten Conference Legends Division with a record of 8-4 overall, 5-3 in the league.
“Their effort (at Nebraska) was exactly the same as their effort every single game this year and more importantly, every single practice this year from spring practice on,” Reid said. “I’m not sure I have ever been around a more intense, hard-working, focused group as I have been around in James (Morris), Anthony (Hitchens), and Chris (Kirksey). They are remarkable guys.”
“Their effort (at Nebraska) was exactly the same as their effort every single game this year and more importantly, every single practice this year from spring practice on. I’m not sure I have ever been around a more intense, hard-working, focused group as I have been around in James (Morris), Anthony (Hitchens), and Chris (Kirksey). They are remarkable guys.”
UI linebackers coach
All three senior linebackers played a part in causing or securing at least one turnover against the Cornhuskers. Hitchens and Morris had interceptions, Kirksey and Morris forced fumbles.
It was one of those games when head coach Kirk Ferentz’s buddy Bill Belichick would have said, “Stats are for losers, the final score is for winners.”
In a game that was dominated by the Hawkeyes on Tom Osborne Field, the final statistics showed Nebraska with advantages in first downs (20-14) and total yards (288-281). The final score of 38-17 showed the worst whipping of a Nebraska team on its own soil since Missouri defeated the Cornhuskers 52-17 in 2008.
“It’s exciting for us, we just want to help the team win,” Morris said. “We want to play well and you can feed off it when all the guys are playing well. Maybe we did a little bit of that today.”
First it was Hitchens with an interception and 18-yard return on Nebraska’s opening possession.
“As soon as I saw Hitch get an interception I was so excited,” Kirksey said. “We always said Hitch was going to get one some time.”
For Hitchens, it was the first pick of his career.
Morris followed with his fourth interception of the season (and sixth career) to end Nebraska’s second drive.
“Then when James got his, I was like, `OK, it’s my turn. I have to get one.'” Kirksey said.
What Kirksey got was the most important turnover of the final quarter. Iowa was leading 24-17 with more than 10 minutes remaining and the Cornhuskers were 60 yards from a tying touchdown. Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah — with 1,568 rushing yards and eight touchdowns this season — darted up the middle and veered left before running into a Hitchens road block. Kirksey whizzed in from the side and jarred the ball loose before Hawkeye Louis Trinca-Pasat recovered. Iowa went on to record its first win in Lincoln since 1943.
“Hitch made a great play,” said Kirksey, who until postgame interviews thought his teammate forced the fumble. “I was there with him containing the ball carrier.”
And knocking the ball free.
“Every minute of every day since last year they worked their butts off to get to where they are now,” Woods said. “They compete every day in practice to see who can make the most plays and get the most turnovers. It’s always great for a defense when your senior leaders are the ones making the plays and showing the way.”
They did it in the final regular season game of their final season…on a big stage…against an excellent opponent.
“We wanted to make sure we left it all on the field,” Morris said. “I think some of the turnovers were a result of that effort and intensity.”