IOWA CITY, Ia. — The story of Iowa’s 2013 football season is written over 12 games and more than 1,600 snaps of the ball.
A majority of those plays — 865 on offense, 790 on defense — are long forgotten. But some define an 8-4 season and a matchup with No. 14 LSU in the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1.
“When things are good, usually there are a lot of key steps along the way,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.
With “The Twelve Days of Christmas” as a theme, here are a dozen plays that tell the story of the Hawkeyes’ return to relevance in 2013.
12 — Rookie training
Quarterback Jake Rudock, starting his first game at Iowa, was in a perfect spot to make a name for himself. The Hawkeyes and Northern Illinois were tied 27-all on Aug. 31 when Iowa took over at its own 45 with 1 minute, 34 seconds to play.
A few first downs, and Rudock could hand it over to Mike Meyer to kick the winning field goal. Instead, Rudock threw an interception that led to the Huskies’ winning field goal. It could have been a crushing career moment. It wasn’t.
“When he does make a play he regrets, he comes right back and keeps playing,” Ferentz said, more than once this season.
11 — Morris stems tide
Iowa was leading Iowa State 10-0 on Sept. 14. But the Cyclones had the ball at midfield late in the second quarter, and looking to be gaining some momentum. Then linebacker James Morris tipped Sam Richardson’s pass into the air, caught it and rumbled 27 yards to the Iowa State 25.
“I thought I was going to score,” Morris said.
Iowa settled for a 38-yard Meyer field goal with 10 seconds remaining in the half and went on to a 27-21 victory.
10 — Something special
Kevonte Martin-Manley returned a punt 83 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter of a 59-3 victory over Western Michigan on Sept. 21. Three plays later, he returned another punt for 63 yards and another touchdown.
“I told him, ‘Why don’t you let the offense get out there a little bit?’” running back Mark Weisman said.
Martin-Manley became the third player in Big Ten history to return two punts for touchdowns in the same game, and the first to do it twice in the same quarter.
9 — Hitting the mark
Underdog Purdue had just scored to tie the score 7-all with less than 6 minutes remaining in the first half Nov. 9 at Ross-Ade Stadium. Rudock drove his team down the field, eventually hooking up with Martin-Manley on a 22-yard touchdown pass with less than two minutes remaining. Rudock threaded the pass between two defenders.
Ferentz said later it was a pass that Rudock probably couldn’t have thrown earlier in the season.
“A big-time throw, certainly,” Ferentz said.
Iowa went on to win 38-14 and became bowl-eligible.
8 — Husker sandwich
Nebraska had closed to 24-17, and knocked Rudock out of the game, when Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens sandwiched Ameer Abdullah, forcing a fumble that was recovered by Louis Trinca-Pasat with 10 minutes left in the game.
On the next play, Jordan Canzeri got around the left corner, with tackle Brandon Scherff as his escort, and gained 37 yards to the Nebraska 2. Weisman scored on the following snap, locking up Iowa’s eighth win of the season Nov. 29.
7 — Good call
Iowa was trailing Michigan 21-14 on Nov. 23 and had the ball for the first series of the fourth quarter. Facing a third-and-9 from the Wolverines’ 32, and everyone in Kinnick Stadium looking for a pass, Rudock audibled to a run play. Damon Bullock gained 8 yards around left end, a play Ferentz said “might have been as big a play as there was in the game.”
The play would have blown up had Michigan blitzed a cornerback.
“That’s the risk you take,” Rudock said. “Sometimes you get lucky. It’s better to be timely than good.”
Weisman picked up 4 yards on fourth-and-1 after Bullock’s run and scored from 9 yards out two plays later to tie the game.
6 — Fake foiled
Nebraska, trailing 14-10 in the third quarter, faced a fourth-and-3 from its own 32. Coach Bo Pelini rolled the dice and called a fake punt. Kirksey and Drew Ott tackled punter Sam Foltz for an 8-yard loss.
On the next play, Rudock threw a 24-yard touchdown dart to Martin-Manley, who had dropped a pass in the end zone on the previous possession.
“You’ve got to have the mental toughness to know that you’re going to have another opportunity,” Martin-Manley said. “And you’ve just got to make the next play when it comes your way.”
5 — Bubble burst
Iowa was nursing a 10-0 lead Sept. 28 in the Big Ten opener at Minnesota late in the first half. The Hawkeyes ran a bubble screen. Damond Powell caught the pass in the right flat, waited for his blockers to clear space and sprinted 74 yards untouched to the end zone.
“It was a great play call,” Powell said. “All the credit goes out to my offensive line and (wide receiver) Tevaun Smith. They made a great block for me. And then all I saw was daylight.”
4 — Triple play
Iowa turned the ball over four times in the first half and trailed Michigan 21-7. The Hawkeyes needed a spark. And they got it on their third snap of the third quarter. Rudock called an audible and saw Smith break free.
Smith made a one-handed catch, broke a tackle and took it the distance for a 55-yard touchdown to give Iowa’s sputtering offense new life.
“Once I caught it, I didn’t want them to catch me,” said Smith, who had career bests of five catches and 97 yards in the 24-21 victory.
3 — Welcome relief
Iowa’s 10-0 halftime lead against Northwestern on Oct. 26 had turned into a 10-all tie late in the fourth quarter. The Wildcats had rallied from double-figure deficits to beat the Hawkeyes in 2008, 2009 and 2010. And when Kain Colter darted around left end for 9 yards to the Iowa 21 with 3:29 seconds to play, the table was set for more Hawkeye heartbreak.
But Northwestern receiver Dan Vitale got called for a block in the back against Iowa defensive end Mike Hardy. It was a block that wasn’t necessary because Colter had already turned the corner. The 15-yard penalty moved the ball back to the Iowa 45. On the next play, Mike Trumpy fumbled Colter’s pitch, Iowa’s Louis Trinca-Pasat recovered and the Hawkeyes went on to win in overtime.
Fueled by that victory, Iowa won four of its last five games to secure a New Year’s Day bowl.
2 — Beating the blitz
Facing a third-and-7 predicament at the Northwestern 8 on the first possession of overtime, Rudock took the snap from Austin Blythe and was greeted by a full-out blitz from linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo and safety Ibraheim Campbell.
With no time to improvise, Rudock threw the ball to the left where he expected tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz to be. And there Fiedorowicz was. Touchdown.
“I thought he was throwing it away,” Morris said. “And then, C.J. came out of nowhere to grab it.”
Iowa had practiced the play against that kind of coverage during the week, and that preparation paid off.
Fiedorowicz had six touchdown catches this season. Five of them came on third down and tied the game or gave Iowa the lead. It was a lead that stood up after Iowa’s defense shut down Northwestern in four plays to secure a 17-10 victory.
1 — Signature strip
Linebacker Anthony Hitchens was in on a team-high 102 tackles this season and forced two fumbles. One of them came in the final minutes against Michigan.
Meyer’s 34-yard field goal with 6:02 remaining had given the Hawkeyes their first lead of the game, 24-21. But Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner marched his team down the field. Facing a third-and-11 from the Iowa 39, Gardner squeezed through the defense and turned the left corner.
Hitchens drew a bead on him, and saw he was carrying the ball in his right hand with the sideline on the left.
“I saw the ball hanging there, so I just ripped it out,” Hitchens said this week. “I was in the right place at the right time.”
Hitchens also recovered the ball on what he calls his most memorable play of the season.
“That was definitely it,” Hitchens said. “It was a big play for the team.”
Iowa’s offense took over with 2:12 to go and ran out the clock for the victory. Ferentz considered Hitchens’ strip the season’s most pivotal play as well, because it came in a game where Iowa had rallied from a two-touchdown halftime deficit to win.
“Nobody surrendered at halftime,” Ferentz said after the regular season concluded. “Fortunately, we had six good quarters of football left in us. Hopefully we can come up with a couple more. It better be all four. Three won’t do it.”