IOWA CITY, Iowa — With the Big Ten West Division championship locked up along with a trip to Indianapolis, Iowa could take the NFL approach this week of resting key players and focusing on the miracle of upsetting either Ohio State or Michigan on Dec. 2.
But No. 16 Iowa’s players and coaches have other thoughts in mind for their annual Black Friday game with Nebraska (5-6, 3-5 Big Ten). The Heroes Trophy is one of four for which the Hawkeyes compete annually, and the Huskers won it last year at Kinnick Stadium. It knocked Iowa (9-2, 6-2) from the Big Ten title game and was the program’s first loss to Nebraska since 2014. There’s also the side note that an Iowa win keeps the Huskers out of the postseason.
All of those feelings matter. But most important for the Hawkeyes is simply winning another game. Iowa has won 10 or more games 10 times historically but just six times in the regular season. That’s the statistic that matters the most for this group.
“We want this 10th win,” receiver Nico Ragaini said. “We’ve got guys banged up, hobbling around at practice every single day, and we’re still pushing. We’re going for this win. This win means something to us.
“November games are a big deal. We want to be 4-0 in November, and we want to continue this rhythm we have and confidence we have going into the Big Ten championship. But we’re really not even thinking about the Big Ten championship right now. We’re all focused on Nebraska.”
The Hawkeyes have won 14 of their last 17 games overall and are 17-1 in November since early 2019. The only loss came last year to Nebraska. In that game, quarterback Spencer Petras suffered a torn rotator cuff and labrum on a sack, and star cornerback Cooper DeJean was knocked out on a helmet-to-helmet block. With tight end Sam LaPorta out following knee surgery, the Hawkeyes struggled to move the ball through the air and gave up too many explosive plays with DeJean out. It resulted in a 24-17 loss, which allowed Purdue to earn a trip to Indianapolis.
“You think about Riley Moss and (Jack) Campbell and LaPorta, guys who could have left,” Iowa tackle Mason Richman said. “Their last game in Kinnick didn’t go well for them because of a team like this. So I think we’ve got to go over there and take one from them at Memorial Stadium.”
Ragaini was honored before the game last year before deciding to return for a sixth year. The hollow memory of losing that game still hurts, but it’s not the primary motivation for him or his teammates.
“I think all of us know that and remember that feeling that happened, and we have it in the back of our heads,” Ragaini said. “But it’s not something that we’re just outright saying. It wouldn’t matter who we were playing this week. We just know that we want to get this 10th win.”
“Coach (Kirk) Ferentz said it perfectly in the team meeting we had yesterday. He said there’s no downside to winning another game,” Richman said. “It’s just honestly bonus football and just an extra opportunity for us to get better and go out there and go against a great team in Nebraska.”
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Strides at QB
From the moment he replaced an injured Cade McNamara through his first three career starts, Iowa sophomore quarterback Deacon Hill struggled mightily. During that span, he completed just 36.7 percent of his passes for 94.5 yards per game.
In the past three, Hill has made strides, completing 65.3 percent for 151.7 yards per game. The Hawkeyes have employed more screens and other passes to get the ball out of Hill’s hands more quickly. Also, he has become more comfortable within the offense and leading while on the field.
“I think it’s more in tune with the offense, and I think, obviously, I’ve grown a little bit,” Hill said. “I’m just trying to be a little more calm out there. But it’s more just trusting what I’m doing, what I’m told, and trusting myself that I can go out there and do it (that) has been the biggest difference.”
It has taken a village of teammates and employees to help Hill improve. It ranges from McNamara and last year’s starter, Petras, to the offensive coaching staff.
Ferentz described Hill’s trajectory as “a long haul.”
“It’s just been a process,” Ferentz said. “We’re not out of the woods yet, certainly. I can’t say enough about his attitude. Easy to get down, and that’s a position where everybody notices. Everybody’s got an opinion. It wasn’t going great. He could have gone south on that one, but he stayed positive and kept working. Just nice to see him get rewarded a little bit, kind of a little bit representative of our whole football team.”
Redshirt freshman receiver Kaleb Brown has emerged as a key contributor and helped increase the completion percentage and passing yardage. During an eight-game stretch, Brown didn’t record more than 10 snaps in any game. He was inserted late against Northwestern and made his first catch a pivotal one: 23 yards to set up a game-winning field goal. He replaced an injured Diante Vines against Rutgers and Illinois and has totaled 10 catches on 14 targets for 98 yards and a touchdown in the past two weeks.
Quick screens always were a part of Iowa’s offense, but now the receivers have become the focus, rather than the tight ends.
“You get a guy like Kaleb, who knows how to run the ball, played running back in high school, fights for those extra yards,” Hill said. “The O-line does a great job of getting out. (Tight end) Addy Ostrenga does an awesome job of blocking those. Then we throw a couple to Nico, too.
“It seems like a minor play, but it’s actually really helpful in keeping momentum moving with the offense.”
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DeJean remains active around the football facility on a scooter after surgery Friday for his broken right leg. He watched the game from a Kinnick Stadium suite Saturday but otherwise appears in good spirits. As for the team, it was touch and go after his injury.
“If there is a blessing in this whole thing — there’s probably two — his recovery will be very predictable and very clean,” Ferentz said. “That’s the good news. The other good news was it happened Wednesday, so we had some time to emotionally recover. It impacted everybody. You could feel it that day on the practice field. So the team moved on from that, and they did a great job there.”
Iowa’s DeJean suffers leg injury, out for regular season
DeJean, a junior, is out for the season, just like McNamara (ACL) and tight ends Luke Lachey (broken leg) and Erick All (ACL). There are plenty of other injuries. Vines and offensive lineman Beau Stephens will miss their third straight games. Center Logan Jones has tried to fight through a sprained ankle but lasted only one series in each of the past two games. Tyler Elsbury, a junior, has performed yeoman’s work in Jones’ stead.
“It’s one of those injuries that’s not going to go away,” Ferentz said. “(Jones is) not going to get 100 percent healthy. Maybe in the bowl game he’ll have a chance to, but next couple weeks, that’s not realistic.”
As for the others who are banged up, expect them to suit up and contribute. Ferentz mentioned Saturday about resting players for the Big Ten Championship Game but Tuesday said, “I was wholeheartedly joking on Saturday.”
(Top photo of Deacon Hill: Matthew Holst / Getty Images)