Iowa finished the 2018 season with a 9-4 record and an impressive bowl-game win against a very good Mississippi State team. It was a season filled with close calls that could have been so much better.
Still, there were a lot of great moments too, and it was a fun season to follow from start to finish. The Hawkeyes finished ranked No. 25 in the country, and won nine games for only the second time since 2009 (12 in 2015).
Here’s what I enjoyed the most about this Iowa team this season:
1. Watching two tight ends emerge to be the best in the land
When the season begin, Noah Fant was the preseason All-American tight end and redshirt sophomore T.J. Hockenson was thought of as the next big thing. There were a clear one-two, though, and no one denied it, even the players, even though there was a slight difference in skill set.
As it turned out, these guys were dangerous together. The Hawkeyes offense was at its best when they were on the field together, and it showed. They were the team’s two leading receivers by yards — Hockenson had 49 catches for 760 yards and 6 touchdowns, Fant had 39 catches for 519 yards and 7 touchdowns. The best day was the show they put on at Indiana, when BOTH of them went over 100 yards on the day. They were fun to watch, and Hockenson won the Mackey Award as the nation’s best tight end.
2. Winning the rivalry games that really matter
The goal is always to win the Big Ten West and have a shot at a conference title, but what also ranks right up there are winning those annual rivalry games along the way. It’s fun to win, but it’s even more fun to beat your biggest rivals. The Hawkeyes did that this year.
They dispatched Iowa State, Minnesota, and Nebraska to keep all those quirky trophies in Iowa City for another year. Those were some wonderful Saturdays.
3. Watching defensive line dominate one game after another
Iowa’s defense carried this team, finishing ranked No. 11 in the country in scoring defense (17.8 points per game). They did it despite starting two freshmen at cornerback much of the year and moving pieces around at linebacker here and there.
Iowa’s defensive line ranked among the best in the country all year. A.J. Epenesa had 10.5 sacks, and Anthony Nelson had 9.5 sacks. Parker Hesse added another four and was fourth on the team in tackles. This was the best position group on the team, without question. They were fun to watch.
4. Seeing Mekhi Sargent emerge as top running back
There’s never been a Key West to Iowa City pipeline when it comes to football players, but junior college transfer running back Mekhi Sargent was a nice, pleasant surprise this year. Buried deep on the depth chart to start the season, he took control late in the season, rushing for 121 yards against Illinois and a whopping 173 yards against Nebraska in the final two games of the regular season.
He finished with 745 yards rushing to lead the team and scored a team-leading 10 touchdowns, 9 rushing and 1 receiving. His spark was something that really mattered.
5. Winning three big games at the end to salvage a season
Iowa was 6-1 at one point, but bitter last-minute consecutive defeats to Penn State, Purdue and Northwestern derailed its title changes. What made this a good season was its ability to bounce back and win its final three games to finish 9-4. That sounds pretty good.
It helped that the offense got its act together. Sargent helped, but quarterback Nate Stanley finished the season strong, as well. He wound up leading the nation in third-down yardage (1,047), was third in passes exceeding 15 yards (26) and first in passes exceeding 25 yards (14). He bounced back from some painful interceptions, most notably at the goal line in the loss to Penn State, but he showed his leadership skills in getting things done and getting his team to the finish line. Scoring 27 points against Mississippi State’s No. 1 scoring defense was really big. Sure, the turnovers helped, but Stanley helped make it happen.