Iowa had their breakthrough season in 1981 under Hayden Fry, when they cracked the Michigan-Ohio State monopoly on the Big Ten’s Rose Bowl bid and came to Pasadena. In the ensuing three years, Fry’s teams went 25-11-1, establishing they were no one-year wonder. 1985 Iowa football was a team of a great expectation, with a preseason #4 national ranking and the hopes of getting back to the Rose Bowl, and this time, winning it.
Chuck Long was at the heart of the expectations. Even though he threw 351 times—the most of any New Year’s Day quarterback except Miami’s Vinny Testaverde, who threw 352—Long remained efficient. He completed 66 percent of his passes and though the interceptions were high, at 15, so were the touchdown passes, at 26.
He shared Big Ten MVP honors with Michigan State’s 2,000-yard running back Lorenzo White, and Long finished second to Bo Jackson in one of the closest Heisman Trophy votes in history.
Long’s weapons started with the versatile running back Ronnie Harmon. An NFL future ahead of him, Harmon ran for over 1,100 yards and caught 49 passes for nearly 600 yards. The receiving corps was well-balanced, with wideout Bill Happell and tight end Scott Halverson working secondaries from every angle.
Larry Station was the heart and soul of the defense and a consensus All-American linebacker. The secondary could play the ball, with Jay Norvel and Devon Mitchell combining for five interceptions. Iowa opened the season with three non-descript games against Drake, Northern Illinois and Iowa State and won by a combined 163-23.
When the dust settled, Iowa was #1 in the country going into the Big Ten schedule. They got a big scare at home against Michigan State, needing Long to take in a bootleg touchdown run to secure a 35-31 win. The Hawkeyes followed that up with a 23-13 win over so-so Wisconsin. Now it was time for the game that had the entire Midwest– indeed the entire nation fired up—the #1 vs #2 battle with Michigan in Iowa City.
After a scoreless first quarter, Long appeared to have broken the ice when he hit Helverson in the back of the end zone. The pass was ruled incomplete, although replay showed it was a completed pass. Under today’s rules with replay, Iowa would have had a touchdown. In 1985, they settled for a field goal.
Michigan promptly brought the kickoff back 60 yards, setting up a quick touchdown. Iowa came back with two more field goals, but another special teams mishap allowed a long kickoff return setting up a Wolverine field goal. In spite of controlling the flow of play, the Hawkeyes trailed 10-9 in the closing minutes.
Long came up big when it mattered most. He converted three third-down throws and moved his team to the 12-yard line. Kicker Rob Houghtlin came on and hit the game-winner on the final play. Iowa won 12-10 and national championship talk was flowing freely.
After a 49-10 blasting of Northwestern, the national title talk got squashed—or more accurately, rained on–in Columbus. Playing in the sloppy wet, Iowa lost to Ohio State 22-13. The Hawkeyes were still #6 in the country, but now the Buckeyes controlled the path to Pasadena.
Iowa took care of their end of things against a pretty good Illinois team that was in close pursuit of the Big Ten lead. The Hawkeyes blasted the Illini 59-0. A shootout with Purdue, with NFL-bound Jim Everett at quarterback followed. Everett’s 3,600 passing yards this season were higher than Long’s, but Iowa pulled out a 27-24 win in West Lafayette.
That same day, Wisconsin did Iowa a big solid, and beat Ohio State 12-7. Iowa was back in the driver’s seat. They needed only beat Minnesota in the season finale to wrap up the Pasadena trip. If the Hawkeyes lost, the Michigan-Ohio State winner would go.
This was a competitive Minnesota team, one that was 6-4 coming in and played well enough to get head coach Lou Holtz the Notre Dame job for the following season. The Hawkeyes still dismantled the Gophers 31-9. Iowa was back into the top five, at #4, and headed back to the Rose Bowl.
Even though there was no path to a national championship, Iowa was looking to put the finishing touches on a special season. UCLA, at 8-2-1 had won the Pac-10. The Bruins were looking for their fourth straight major bowl win and third in Pasadena since 1982.
Much was made coming into the game about how this year’s Iowa team was not there to enjoy the sights and sounds of SoCal the way they presumably were in 1981. This year it was all about winning the program’s first Rose Bowl trophy since 1958. Perhaps it created too much pressure.
Harmon would fumble four times, and was never able to get untracked. Long threw for 319 yards, but without support from his defense or his running game, it wasn’t enough.
UCLA running back Eric Ball had the game of his life with 227 yards and four touchdowns. The Bruins racked up nearly 500 yards in total offense. Iowa lost 45-28.
Iowa had clearly established themselves as a top-tier Big Ten team in 1985. Unfortunately, they also shared the other predominant trait of Big Ten teams from the 1970s and 1980s, and that was an inability to win in Pasadena.
Fry would get Iowa back to this stage one more time, following the 1990 season, but never did get a win. The program did not get a major bowl win until 2009, when they beat Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl. The search for a Rose Bowl victory remains elusive.