By RICK BROWN
Leading up to the 2016 season opener against Miami of Ohio on Sept. 3 at Kinnick Stadium, hawkeyesports.com’s Rick Brown is taking a game-by-game look back at the University of Iowa’s historic 2015 season.
With perspective from Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz, his staff and players, we hope to give you some insight into a season that will never be forgotten.
Iowa 10, Wisconsin 6
Oct. 3, 2015, Camp Randall Stadium
Wisconsin ran 72 offensive plays in its Big Ten opener against Iowa. And you can make the argument that the biggest came in the shadow of the Hawkeyes’ goal line, with just under 8 minutes to play and Iowa clinging to a 10-6 lead.
It was second-and-goal from the Iowa 1-yard line when Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave took the snap and right guard Micah Kapoi stepped on his foot. Stave fumbled, and Iowa’s Faith Ekakitie recovered.
But do you know what really happened on that play? It might have been the biggest play turned in by a Hawkeye defender all year. The reason Kapoi stepped on Stave’s foot is because Iowa defensive end Nate Meier blew up the play.
Meier was lined up on Kapoi’s left shoulder. As soon as the ball was snapped, Meier drove low into Kapoi and knocked him back. That’s why Kapoi’s left foot ended up on top of Stave’s right foot. For the record, Kapoi outweighed Meier by more than 60 pounds.
“As you describe that play, I sit here and think of our game with Penn State in 2008,” University of Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Mitch King drew a holding penalty on Penn State’s last possession, which put them in a third-and-forever situation. They end up throwing the ball high, we pick it off (Tyler Sash). Sometimes it’s the play before the play that really impacts the situation.”
Iowa knocked off No. 3 Penn State, 24-23, on Daniel Murray’s 31-yard field goal in the final seconds. It also extinguished the Nittany Lions’ national championship dreams. King’s play set the stage for the dramatic finish, much like Meier’s play forced the crunch-time turnover.
“A lot of times, that play before the play doesn’t get the recognition it should, but it’s a huge part of what happens on the next play,” Ferentz said. “That’s a great illustration of it right there.”
Iowa’s defense had to answer the challenge once more, as Wisconsin’s offense threatened again in the final minute. But on fourth-and-2 from the Iowa 16, Stave threw wide of tight end Troy Fumagalli, who was covered by linebacker Cole Fisher in the right flat.
“We called a time out right before that, ” UI defensive coordinator Phil Parker said. “We knew they would try to make an easy pass and get a first down. It was a hard angle where the guy was trying to catch it. Our players had a good idea what the play was. I don’t know if it was great defense of lack of execution, but that’s what happens when you pass the ball.”
Iowa had its first road victory over a rated Big Ten opponent since 2010 at Michigan. More importantly, the victory was a huge step in the Hawkeyes’ march to the Big Ten West Division title.
“Coming into a season, you don’t know if you’re going to be good or bad,” Iowa linebacker Josey Jewell said. “You just hope for the best, and put in 100 percent on the field. The determining point for us was the Wisconsin game. It gave us the understanding that we could play. We had just beaten a good team. That gave us confidence going forward.”
Tight end George Kittle, who accounted for the only touchdown of the game on a 1-yard pass from quarterback C.J. Beathard in the second quarter, agreed with Jewell.
“The Wisconsin game was a big one for us,” Kittle said. “Our defense played incredible. We just felt like, “Hey, we’re rolling.’ “
Parker’s defense limited Wisconsin to 320 yards of total offense, and 86 on the ground. Desmond King had two interceptions. The first one set up the Beathard-to-Kittle touchdown.
“Going into the game, we knew they wanted to run the ball and we had to stop them,” Parker said. “And to not give up a touchdown to Wisconsin in their home stadium was good. Desmond’s two interceptions helped us out a little when they did throw the ball.”
Iowa’s offense managed just 221 yards of total offense. Running back Jordan Canzeri accounted for 125 of them in 26 carries.
“It was an old-fashioned, nose-to-nose ballgame,” Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis said. “We won on the road against a very good football team. I don’t think there’s any question we were thinking, ‘OK, this group is a little different. They don’t wilt under pressure.’ I think we gained confidence.”
Ferentz said the victory at Camp Randall was a significant milestone for the 2015 team.
“It was really important,” Ferentz said. “It was the opener. It was on the road. And I thought our team did a good job of preparing during the week and got on the bus with the right mindset. The intent was to go up there and win the game, and we fully realized and appreciated how difficult it would be because they’ve been playing good football for quite some time there, and it’s never an easy environment.”
In the end, a play by Meier that’s been lost in the shuffle, put Iowa on top of the West Division standings. It was their home for the rest of the season.
“I thought our guys handled the ups and downs of a ballgame really well,” Ferentz said. “That was a tough football game, where both teams competed hard. The thing that pops up about that is the value of playing every play, no matter how important it is, including when they got the ball down there to the goal line.
“In our last Big Ten game in Indianapolis (against Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship) we couldn’t come up with the play. But we did that day. And that’s why you fight right to the end. That’s lesson No 1.”
Instead of Wisconsin moving the ball one more yard and taking the lead, Meier submarined Kapoi and put Iowa in the driver’s seat of the West Division race.
“He was the one, with the penetration he had,” Parker said. “That’s why we had him in there. He’s quick, fast and explosive. He knocks the guy back, he steps on (Stave’s) foot and caused the fumble. No one really knows that.”
About the Author
Rick Brown is a native of Fort Dodge, Iowa, and a University of Iowa graduate. He covered Iowa athletics for the past four decades for the Des Moines Register prior to his retirement in December.