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Kirk Ferentz admitted he walked off the field that day last September wondering if Iowa would win another game after the Hawkeyes barely got past Northern Iowa in the season opener. He walked off the field after Iowa's last game with frozen Gatorade in his hair, the coach of the second 11-win team in school his-tory and the leader of a program with its biggest bowl victory in 51 years.
By the end of the season, Iowa had done enough to make most of its followers forget that 17-16 victory in the opener against the FCS Panthers. But not Ferentz. He was watching in March when Northern Iowa stunned top-seeded Kansas in the second round of the NCAA men's basketball tournament. When the final horn sounded and the Panther party began, Ferentz took note of the despair on the faces of the Jayhawks and turned to his wife, Mary.
"That could've been us back in September," he said.
While many remember Iowa's 2009 season for its spectacular feats -- the first 9-0 start in school history, the victory against Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl and the No. 7 finish in the Associated Press rankings -- Ferentz hasn't forgotten how the year nearly started with a stunning upset loss.
The Hawkeyes blocked two kicks in the final seven seconds to preserve victory. Ferentz isn't sure how Iowa's season would have unfolded had the Hawkeyes lost that day, but several of his players said it was a galvanizing win that helped the team along its path to the program's first win of a bowl of BCS ilk since 1959.
Along the way, Iowa became a regular high-wire act. The Hawkeyes won four games by three points or less. They rallied in the second half for wins at Penn State and Wisconsin. They won on a last-second touchdown pass against Michigan State, and they erased a two-touchdown deficit in the second half against Indiana, scoring four touchdowns in the fourth quarter in one of the wildest games in recent Iowa history.
The Hawkeyes were 9-0 and ranked fourth in the country in one poll on Nov. 7 when quarterback Ricky Stanzi got twisted around on a sack and went down with a severe ankle sprain in the first half against Northwestern. Iowa lost 17-10. With freshman James Vandenberg making his first start at quarterback the following week with the Big Ten title on the line at Ohio State, the Hawkeyes took the Buckeyes to overtime before losing 27-24. Stanzi didn't play again until the Orange Bowl.
Two discussions often popped up surrounding the Hawkeyes at the conclusion of last season: Where would Iowa have been had the Hawkeyes not lost their quarterback? And what is Iowa capable of in 2010 with so many talented players returning?
"We were really close to having a better season [than 11-2]," Ferentz said. "But we were equally as close to being right in the middle of the pack, and I think it's important to see both sides."
That Iowa could lose six NFL draft choices off last year's team -- the most for the program in 44 years -- and still be considered a Big Ten title contender indicates the amount of talent Ferentz has stockpiled. The Hawkeyes have 15 starters returning, highlighted by perhaps the best collection of skill play-ers Iowa has had since 2002 and the makings of its best defense since Ferentz took over 12 years ago and brought Norm Parker in to run his defense. Those are just a few of the reasons the Hawkeyes surfaced in several spring top 10 lists.
"My question is: Are we fifth in the country or fifth in the conference right now?" Ferentz said. "We're really close to being a middle-of-the-pack team right now in the Big Ten.
"If everybody keeps their focus where they need to and if we make progress like we're supposed to -- we have to stay healthy -- and really be doing a good job every week, we'll have a chance to be a good football team. We're hardly there, and I think our players are aware of that, and that's the key thing. They just need to understand for us to be in the upper half of the conference, we really have to be doing things well."
Head Coach: Kirk Ferentz (Connecticut '78)
Record at school: 81-55 (11 seasons)
Career record: 93-76 (14 seasons)
• Ken O'Keefe (John Carroll '75) Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks
• Norm Parker (Eastern Michigan '65) Defensive Coordinator
• Erik Campbell (Michigan '88) Receivers
• Lester Erb (Bucknell '90) Running Backs/Special Teams
• Eric Johnson (Vanderbilt '95) Recruiting Coordinator/Tight Ends
• Rick Kaczenski (Notre Dame '97) Defensive Line
• Reese Morgan (Wartburg '72) Offensive Line
• Phil Parker (Michigan State '86) Defensive Backs
• Darrell Wilson (Connecticut '81) Linebackers/Special Teams