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By RICK BROWN
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Iowa’s 2004 football team finished next-to-last nationally in rushing yards and defied conventional wisdom by winning the last eight games, a Big Ten title, and the Capital One Bowl.
“We were injury-plagued at the running back position,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz recalled. “We had some injury issues up front, so we were not a real dominant team. We broke every axiom in football I ever believed in.”
Axiom No. 1 — you have to be able to run the ball to be a championship team. The Hawkeyes averaged 72.58 yards a game on the ground and only Oregon State, at 70.67, was worse.
“What allowed us to survive is that we had a good defensive team,” Ferentz said. “A good special teams team and we found ways to make plays, like the Capital One Bowl. Sometimes good things happen, guys improvise a little bit or do something. Good players make things happen.”
Iowa lost running backs Albert Young, Marcus Schnoor, and Jermelle Lewis to injury early in the season. Sam Brownlee, a sophomore walk-on, was the team’s leading rusher that season with 227 yards.
And yet, there they were, standing on the turf of sold out Kinnick Stadium and accepting a Big Ten Championship trophy after dismantling No. 9 Wisconsin, 30-7, in the regular-season finale Nov. 20, 2004.
Michigan entered the last week 7-0 in Big Ten play. No. 17 Iowa and Wisconsin were 6-1. Ohio State’s 37-21 victory over the Wolverines was already over as the teams warmed up at Kinnick. That meant the Iowa-Wisconsin winner would gain a share of the league title.
The Hawkeyes leaned on their less-than-vaunted running game and survived a shaky start to get the job done against the Badgers.
Iowa quarterback Drew Tate was intercepted by Jim Leonhard, now Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator, on the first two possessions of the game.
“I’ll never forget it,” Ferentz said. “I thought there might be an FBI investigation afterward. I thought Tate was on the take. Leonhard got both of them, and they were right on the numbers, too. It was like, ‘What are you doing?’ It was not a good feeling. That’s a great illustration of why games are 60 minutes.”
Iowa’s defense, one that finished the season fifth nationally in rushing defense and 11th in total defense, surrendered no points after those back-to-back interceptions.
“That team had a winning mindset, no question about it,” Ferentz said. “That’s not the way you want to start, especially against a good team. They were the team that was supposed to win the championship and it was an inauspicious beginning, to say the least. But our guys weathered that; we were a mentally tough team.”
With a mentally tough quarterback in Tate, who didn’t let the slow start affect his game.
“He is mentally tough to this day,” Ferentz said. “If he was a boxer, he would have thought he could be the heavyweight champion of the world. It was tough to get him down, that’s for sure. Tough to get him to say ‘Uncle.'”
Tate bounced back to throw a pair of first-half touchdown passes to Clinton Solomon, the second on a 51-yard play in the final minute to give Iowa a 14-7 halftime lead. Solomon ran an improvised route.
“That’s fair,” Ferentz said. “It’s kind of the nature of that team.”
Tate threw a third touchdown pass, this time to Scott Chandler in the third quarter and Iowa’s defense pitched a shutout the second half thanks to two interceptions (Sean Considine, Jovon Johnson), four sacks, and three forced fumbles.
Linebackers Abdul Hodge and Chad Greenway combined for 21 tackles. Wisconsin, playing without starting tailback Anthony Davis, finished the game with 41 yards in 30 carries.
“The tide turned in that game and the defense ignited that,” Ferentz said.
Here’s the real kicker: The Hawkeyes played keep-away by running the ball. Iowa ran the ball on 15 of its 19 plays in the fourth quarter. Fullback Aaron Mickens started the Hawkeyes’ final drive by gaining five, four, and 18 yards on consecutive plays.
“One of my favorite memories is we ran the ball in the fourth quarter,” Ferentz said. “They couldn’t get it back from us. On paper, that wasn’t going to happen in that game.”
The Wisconsin game was a reflection of the entire 2004 season. The Hawkeyes started slow, losing two of its four games including a 44-7 shellacking at Arizona State and a 30-17 decision at Michigan in the Big Ten opener. But Iowa rallied to win its last eight games to finish 10-2 and No. 8 in The Associated Press poll.
Against the Badgers, a slow start was rewarded by a fast finish.
“We kept swinging the bat,” Ferentz said. “It was a less-than-stellar beginning, to say the least. It could have gone the other way real fast. But our guys kept working and found a way to win that thing.”
|Win No. 10||2003 Michigan|
|Win No. 9||2015 Nebraska|
|Win No. 8||2004 Outback Bowl vs. Florida|
|Win No. 7||2015 Pittsburgh|
|Win No. 6||2009 Michigan State|
|Win No. 5||2017 Ohio State|