LIGER’S DEN: Final report cards for Iowa, ISU and UNI football

Iowa junior wideout Ihmir Smith-Marsette prepares to line up during the Hawkeyes’ Sept. 14 Cy-Hawk battle against Iowa State at MidAmerican Field in Jack Trice Stadium in Ames. Smith-Marsette’s three touchdowns lifted Iowa to a Holiday Bowl victory over USC on Dec. 27 in San Diego. [Tyler Anderson/The Graphic-Advocate]
Tyler Anderson
The Graphic-Advocate Editor

Back by not-so-popular demand, the Liger’s Den is still kicking in 2020.

So, when I released the poll asking folks about how often they wanted to see the Liger’s Den not too long ago, I was a little surprised by the results. I had plenty of folks (13 out of 22 votes) who didn’t want to see it ever again.

That’s fair. But let me offer a quick counterpoint.

During the post-holiday crawl, or at times during the summer, news tends to grind to a halt. This past week, there were no city council meetings, nothing going on in the school board front, the Titans are on break and there’s a lack of big events between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

The tail end of the calendar year is for folks to be with their families, friends and loved ones. It’s also a good time to take off for a few days, enjoy some decent weather (even though we’ve been pretty mild, which is quite nice) and go see some cool stuff. 

Around this time of year, I believe it’s alright for me to talk about stuff and eat up some real estate. It also explains why we have our Top 5s in the Jan. 1 edition and in this week’s edition of The Graphic-Advocate.

If you follow me on any social media or visit with me, you’ll notice that I hardly talk about myself, because I’m not a super exciting person. I work, I go to things and I go home. I pay bills, buy groceries and I like to eat wings on a Thursday night.

More importantly, I put my pants on one leg at a time. Most importantly, I’d rather be there for you than for me. You are more important than I am, by a country mile.

So, give the Liger’s Den a chance. It doesn’t come around all too often. Plus, it mostly goes online, anyways.

But, if you are interested in writing a column, The Graphic-Advocate could always use some more local voices. Just contact me at or give the office a call at 464-3188.

As long as you’re not too political (there’s enough politics in other places as it is) or slightly off-center, we’ll hear you out. We would love to have more “slice of life” stuff.

I’ll get off my soapbox now.

Marching onward, I want to talk some college football. I want to talk about our big three college sportsball teams that call the 29th State home.

It was something that I created a little while ago on our website (, and it’s the team report cards at the midway point of the season. In the inaugural report card, I gave the Iowa Hawkeyes and Iowa State Cyclones a B- grade and provided an A- grade for the Panthers of the University of Northern Iowa.

With only the College Football Playoff Championship left on the docket, I can finally kick out report cards for the Hawks, Cyclones and Panthers. I know that the guys at the coffee shop have been itching to read these.


Iowa Hawkeyes: A

When I first wrote about the Hawks, I noted the struggling running game and their strong defense. When I saw them up close and personal in the Cy-Hawk game, I wasn’t really impressed with the black and gold.

Thank you for proving me wrong, Hawkeyes. For that, I’ll give an A to Iowa.

Even though they fell short against Rose Bowl participant Wisconsin, the Hawks (10-3, 6-3 Big Ten) upset a top 10-ranked Minnesota, fended off Illinois and had to use a late field goal to put away Nebraska in Lincoln. During that period of time, the Hawks found their rhythm in the running game and junior defensive end A.J. Epenesa proved why he’s bound for the NFL.

Iowa didn’t necessarily go to the Outback Bowl like I predicted, but they did go to a nice place in San Diego. It was funny, because all of the experts spoke on how the Hawks were overmatched by USC in the Holiday Bowl, slated for the evening of Dec. 27.

The pundits talked about how the Trojans were “motivated” by head coach Clay Helton, but forgot about how Iowa was motivated by the loss of former Athletic Director Bump Elliott and legendary head coach Hayden Fry.

In their 49-24 rout of USC at SDCCU Stadium, junior Ihmir Smith-Marsette went off by scoring three touchdowns – with his most electrifying moment coming from a 98-yard kickoff return for a score in the second quarter.

Senior quarterback Nate Stanley was stellar, going 18-of-27 for 213 yards and two TDs, while Epenesa shifted the game to the Hawkeyes’ favor by knocking freshman QB Kedon Slovis (who had gained a hot hand for a spell) out of the game.

In 2003, when the Hawks and Trojans last met, those programs were both on the rise. Now, Iowa has presented place of stability and consistency with a generous portion of splendid work ethic. The Hawks never dip too low (their last non-winning season was in 2012) when struggling and when they’re great, they get plenty of love and respect.

USC hasn’t been the same since sanctions struck the program following the tenure of former head coach Pete Carroll. The Trojans can accumulate talent, there’s no doubt, but for the past few seasons, haven’t been able to put everything all together.

By the way, is it safe to call Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz “legendary?” He’s not only the longest currently tenured head coach in FBS football, but he guided the Hawkeyes to three straight bowl victories and six seasons of more than 10 victories.

It’ll get better from there. The Hawks boast the 29th best recruiting class, according to 247Sports rated Iowa at No. 31 in terms of recruiting. One of 22 commitments is a name that you may be seeing in the near future: quarterback Deuce Hogan, a four-star out of Grapevine Faith in Texas.


Iowa State Cyclones: B-

As much as I like the Cyclones, I’ve learned to not slap expectations on them.

But, they didn’t dip down to 6-7 nor did they exceed the optimistic prediction of going 8-5. Instead, Iowa State settled for 7-6 overall and 5-4 in the Big 12.

For staying the same, the same grade remains for the cardinal and gold.

In the final stretch, they fell short in an upset-bid against Oklahoma on Nov. 9 in Norman and used a late second field goal propel past Texas via a 23-21 victory on Nov. 16 at Jack Trice Stadium. Then, Iowa State split with the Kansas schools by beating KU and coming up short against K-State.

Then, the Cyclones came away with a tough draw for the Camping World Bowl on Dec. 28 in Orlando. A few experts penned an ISU upset over No. 14 Notre Dame, but the majority favored the Fighting Irish.

What killed the Cyclones were two early fumbles, which set ISU’s prolific offense – led by sophomore signal caller Brock Purdy – back by two scores. Iowa State never recovered.

From what I’ve learned about the game of football, a great defense can snuff out a good offense.

But Cyclone Nation shouldn’t fret, not yet. Despite a sluggish end to the year, Iowa State does provide plenty of hope for 2020.

Purdy and plenty of big time players such as wideout Tarique Milton, running back Breece Hall and tight end Charlie Kolar. However, there will be questions over its offensive line.

Recruiting wise, Iowa State has had one of their best classes in school history, with a No. 38 ranking on Rivals and No. 43 in the 247Sports poll. A familiar face to local football fans is West Sioux’s Hunter Dekkers, who is tabbed as ISU’s lone four-star pickup.

In an ultra-competitive Big 12, the Cyclones have the tools to make noise next fall. I just hope that Iowa State can capitalize on their window of opportunity with head coach Matt Campbell.


UNI Panthers: A

I know that it’s a bit cliché, but I always come out high on the Panthers. They bumped up from an A- grade to an A.

Finishing No. 6 in the FCS polls, UNI exceeded expectations by finishing 2019 with a 10-5 record and an appearance in the Quarterfinals. It was a magnificent playoff run to boot, by throttling San Diego in the first round and upsetting South Dakota State 13-10 in the second round.

The Panthers season ending loss came at the hands of No. 2 James Madison, who will battle No. 1 North Dakota State in the NCAA FCS National Championship on Jan. 11 at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas. The game was closer than the 17-0 score line lets on.

Even better, UNI finished second in the Missouri Valley Football Conference when they were initially tabbed to finish fifth in the conference’s preseason poll. That’s a heck of a job by head coach Mark Farley and his staff.

With that double-digit win total, it was the Panthers’ best finish since 2014.

What made UNI’s season special was their defense, who was ranked seventh in the FCS in total defense, seventh in scoring defense and second in the MVFC in turnovers gained.

Quarterback Will McElvain had a solid freshman season with 2,778 yards with 20 touchdowns with just seven interceptions. Junior Elerson Smith was a beast on defensive side of the ball, rating ninth in the nation in total sacks with 13 solos and two sack assists. 

UNI is young, but the big question remains: Can the Panthers knock the Bison off from their throne as the top FCS team in the nation in the near future?

We’ll have to see. But I will say this, the 2019 season wasn’t a fluke and the Panthers do have a bright future ahead of them.


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