Football faces much-improved Iowa to end year

Following Iowa’s 27-17 upset win over Northwestern on Saturday, Hawkeyes fans at Kinnick Stadium rushed the home turf with joy.
But this celebration wasn’t the typical frolicking one might see after a big win against a ranked opponent.
At 3-8, this year’s Iowa team has no bowl aspirations, or even a winning season for that matter. So why would Hawkeyes fans choose to rush the field?
Quite simply: This has been a successful season in Iowa City.
After finishing last in the Big Ten a year ago, and being picked by most publications to follow that up in 2000 with another bottom-of-the-conference finish, no one respected the Hawkeyes.
Iowa could have packed the season in after a 1-8 start this year, if not before it even began.
But the Hawkeyes didn’t, and that’s why Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz and his team have won two games in a row — at Penn State and in Iowa City against the Wildcats.
“(The players) have started to realize their hard work is paying off,” Ferentz said. “We know we’re not ready for a Rose Bowl, but there’s no reason we can’t be successful in the future.”
No, Iowa won’t be going bowling this year. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t a bowl caliber team.
With a nonconference schedule which included Big 12 powers Kansas State, Iowa State and Nebraska, the Hawkeyes didn’t play the cupcakes that can make many teams bowl eligible.
The tough early schedule, combined with what Ferentz called a young and inexperienced team, caused the Hawkeyes to begin the year 0-5.
What impressed Gophers coach Glen Mason so much is the way Iowa has stayed together — a credit Mason sends Ferentz’s way.
“They won one game last year, and looked like they were on the run again this year, but all of a sudden then have brought it together,” Mason said. “(Ferentz’s) strength is that his kids believe in him. He has not lost his team.”
With the 11 conference teams living out perhaps the craziest year in recent Big Ten memory, college football fans are scratching their collective heads bald.
Expect those wearing Hawkeyes apparel.
“About the only fans who are happy right now in the league are from Iowa,” Mason said.
Johnson considers options
Gophers junior wideout Ron Johnson, who leads the Big Ten with 987 receiving yards this season, said Tuesday he is torn between returning to Minnesota next year, or heading to the NFL.
Johnson has been a problem for opposing defenses all season, averaging 98.7 yards per game with nine touchdowns.
Teammate and cousin of Johnson, Gophers defensive end Karon Riley, understands Johnson’s situation.
A year ago, Riley could have entered the draft but decided to stay for his final year of college.
“He flip-flops like a fish out of water,” Riley said of Johnson’s wavering back and forth between college and the pros.
Mason credits Monson
After hearing that Gophers basketball coach Dan Monson landed top in-state recruit Rick Rickert, Mason said it was a boost for the entire athletic department — especially after all the department has gone through in the past several months.
“For Monson to have the tenacity to stay after him is an inspiration to all of us,” Mason said. “(Rickert) could have gone anywhere, but he came to Minnesota.”
Extra Points
ù At halftime of the Minnesota-Iowa game the Gophers will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the 1960 national championship team.
Also being honored will be the quarterback of the Gophers that year, Sandy Stephens. Stephens, who passed away this summer, will have his No. 15 jersey retired.
Stephens, the University’s first black quarterback, is the only Gophers player in the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame.
ù Saturday is also senior day, and the Gophers will honor their 16 seniors before the game.
Included in the list are tri-captains Riley, center Ben Hamilton and linebacker Sean Hoffman.

John R. Carter covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]