IOWA CITY (AP) — When the Big Ten paired conference newcomer Nebraska with Iowa for the final game of the season, the prevailing thought was that the border state schools would quickly become heated rivals.
It’s hard to drum up much intensity when one team has nothing tangible left to play for.
The free falling Hawkeyes (4-7, 2-5 Big Ten) will play in a meaningless game for the first time in 12 years on Friday when they host the 17th-ranked Cornhuskers (9-2, 6-1).
Nebraska can clinch a spot in the Big Ten title game with a win. About all Iowa can do is walk away with a consolation prize that wouldn’t ease the sting of perhaps its toughest season under 14-year coach Kirk Ferentz.
Rather than use the game as a precursor to spring practice, Ferentz will let his underachieving 2012 squad have one last chance to compete together.
“We’ll do our best to win this game. I didn’t want to alter who goes in and that type of thing. We’ll play the guys that give us a best chance to win, hopefully,” Ferentz said.
The Hawkeyes have tumbled out of bowl eligibility for the first time since 2000 because of five straight losses. Last week, Michigan drove for touchdowns on its first six possessions — with each drive lasting at least 60 yards — in a 42-17 win that was even easier than the final score might indicate.
Many teams might use a meaningless finale to work in youngsters with an eye toward next season.
But Ferentz wants to win — and he’ll worry about 2013 when it comes.
“From the day we got here, our idea was to play the best we could in every football game, and that’s really all that’s motivated us through the end of 14 years,” Ferentz said. “If it means a senior playing or a true freshman, it really doesn’t matter. Whoever is best suited to help the team win, that will be your guiding light regardless of the circumstances.”
It’s a small group of impact seniors who will play for Iowa for the final time on Friday.
That’s been part of the problem in 2012 — and perhaps a silver lining for 2013.
Ferentz won’t budge on senior quarterback James Vandenberg, who has thrown every pass for the Hawkeyesthis season even though just seven of them have been in the end zone. Vandenberg’s senior-season woes have a source of much discussion among Hawkeyes fans, but Ferentz reiterated Tuesday how proud he is of Vandenberg for the way he’s handled adversity this fall.
Redshirt freshman Jake Rudock, the backup on the depth chart, junior college transfer Cody Sokol and true freshman C.J. Beathard will have to wait until spring ball to challenge for playing time.
Vandenberg, a Keokuk, Iowa native, will get one final chance to start at Kinnick Stadium.
“Things haven’t gone the way you draw them up, but that’s life. That’s football. You’ve got to roll with punches and keep moving on,” Vandenberg said.
It will also be the final home for senior cornerback Micah Hyde and center James Ferentz, longtime valuable starters who could vie for postseason honors and a shot at the next level.
But save for Vandenberg, Hyde, Ferentz and a pair of linemen on an underperforming defensive front, theHawkeyes won’t lose much in 2013. In fact, they’ll likely be one of the deepest teams in the Big Ten.
Iowa will attempt to turn that depth into better results in an offseason that’s starting much earlier than expected.
“The bottom line is that this program is bigger than all of us. We’re building for years to come,” Vandenberg said. “The program is not in trouble at all. As long as coach Ferentz is here and (strength and conditioning) coach (Chris) Doyle and that whole group of guys, we’re going to be fine.”