- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Kirk Ferentz earned his Bachelor's degree in English Education, but the Iowa head coach could easily pass for a history major.
Ferentz frequently references the program's past when he surveys the present and the future of Hawkeyes football. And for quite some time, Ferentz has talked about the 2001 season.
Back in the spring, as Iowa endured an embarrassing series of off-field incidents involving football players, Ferentz brought up 2001, "our worst conduct year," he said. The Hawkeyes were solid citizens the next fall, and Ferentz hoped the same would hold true with his current squad.
The pattern from 2001 also has been reflected on the field. That year, Iowa lost five regular-season games by single digits, adding up to a total of 27 points. The 2008 Hawkeyes entered Saturday at 5-4, with all four losses coming by five points or fewer (12 points total).
"I talked to the team [Nov. 2] about our 2001 season, which was a little bit like how this one's been," Ferentz told ESPN.com on Monday night. "It took us till our 12th game, the Alamo Bowl against Texas Tech, where we finally won a close one. We drove the ball the length of the field, kicked a field goal and then Bob Sanders picked off a Hail Mary in the end zone to seal it.
"We were hopeful it wouldn't take 12 games to get one of those."
It didn't. Iowa's breakthrough came early Saturday evening against then-No. 3 Penn State, as Daniel Murray drilled a 31-yard field goal to lift his team to a 24-23 come-from-behind win.
The upset triggered a raucous on-field celebration, a congratulatory message from Iowa Gov. Chet Culver and the hope that perhaps Iowa had turned a corner. After all, the Hawkeyes followed the 2001 season with a dominant run from 2002-04, averaging 10.3 wins per year and reaching three January bowl games.
Could the Penn State win be the breakthrough Iowa needs?
"Right now, we're definitely in small-picture mode," Ferentz said. "We're looking at the window in front of us, and that's all we need to worry about. We're 6-4 because we deserve to be. The games we came up short in, we didn't get the job done quite well enough. Hopefully, Saturday was a step in the right direction."
It helps that many of the heroes in Saturday's win were non-seniors.
Sophomore defensive end Adrian Clayborn recorded two sacks and a forced fumble. Redshirt freshman safety Tyler Sash had the critical interception in the fourth quarter. Junior running back Shonn Greene ran for 117 yards and two touchdowns against the Big Ten's top rushing defense.
And sophomore quarterback Ricky Stanzi rebounded from two third-quarter turnovers to lead Iowa on two scoring drives in the final 12:20. Murray is only a sophomore, and he backs up a freshman in Trent Mossbrucker.
Though the 23-year-old Greene is a strong candidate to enter the NFL draft a year early, Iowa will return most of its core in 2009.
"We start three seniors on defense and three, sometimes four seniors on offense," Ferentz said. "We're a fairly young football team right now. [The Penn State game] was a great experience. It gave them first-hand exposure to what it takes to compete against a top team."
Ferentz considers Stanzi a reflection of the team this season: a young player who endured several trial-and-error games, only to rebound from mistakes with big plays. Limiting turnovers remains a priority for Stanzi, but he has grown as a leader.
It's tough to imagine where Iowa would be without Greene, who came off a year away from the program to rank third nationally in rushing average (137.4 ypg). The 235-pound junior has eclipsed 100 rushing yards in all 10 games, the only FBS back to stake a claim to that feat.
"For any given position, I can't imagine anybody's doing better than Shonn," Ferentz said. "All you have to do is look at the statistics. They pretty much tell the whole story."
The statistics on Ferentz and his program weren't promising entering the fall. Iowa averaged just 6.3 wins the last three seasons and repeatedly lost close games down the stretch. Coupled with the rising number of player arrests -- 18 in the span between April 2007 and this past July -- Ferentz had been placed on the hot seat heading into his 10th season.
Though his job security likely was never in doubt -- he makes good coin and has a contract extension through 2012 -- Ferentz is certainly helped by a decent season and the Penn State victory. Iowa could be in the mix for a New Year's Day bowl game if it finishes with wins against Purdue and Minnesota.
"My attitude has always been the goal is to win a championship," Ferentz said. "That's certainly not going to take place this year. So our attitude has been that we're trying to build for the next one. 2001 was a huge part of the building of our success in 2002. Good things came out of that season.
"Nobody can predict when the next one's going to come, or if it will come, but everything you do that's good to me is part of building for the next one."