1991 Iowa Football: Hayden Fry’s Last Really Good Team

Life had good for the football fans of Iowa City over the past decade. Hayden Fry led the Iowa program to a breakthrough Rose Bowl trip in 1981. The Hawkeyes went there again in 1985, and then a third time in 1990. The 1991 Iowa football team didn’t quite make Pasadena, but they were still very good. Although their success has a bittersweet taste from the perspective history, because this Hawkeye team proved to be the last really good one that Fry would coach.

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The defense ranked 14th in the country in 1991 and they were led by an outstanding defensive end, All-American Leroy Smith. On the other side of the ball, center Mike Davis got third-team All-American mention and helped lead the way for 1,000-yard rusher Mike Saunders. Lew Montgomery rushed for nearly 500 as an alternative in the backfield.

Matt Rodgers wasn’t as decorated as some of his teammates, but the quarterback still had a 65% completion rate—excellent by the standards of the era, and generated eight yards-per-pass. His 14-11 TD/INT ratio was acceptable per the norms of 1991 and the offense ranked 28th nationally in scoring.

Iowa was ranked #18 to start the season and blasted out of the gate against a soft non-conference schedule. They hammered Hawaii 53-10, beat up woeful in-state rival Iowa State 29-10 and then battered Northern Illinois 58-7. They were ready for Big Ten play to start and there was no time to waste, because Michigan was coming to Iowa City on October 5.

The Wolverines were ranked seventh and were the favorite win the conference championship. They had already played a difficult schedule, beating Notre Dame and losing to Florida State in the biggest games anywhere in the country during the month of September. Michigan had a wide receiver by the name of Desmond Howard, who would end up winning the Heisman Trophy.

Both offenses traded blows in the first half, each scoring three touchdowns. Iowa missed the PAT the first time and Fry made the mistake of futilely chasing points, as his team missed two-point conversions on the subsequent touchdowns. Fortunately, Michigan was having as many problems with their own extra points and the Hawkeyes only trailed 19-18.

Iowa couldn’t run the ball though, while Michigan was pounding away on the ground. The Hawkeyes were outrushed 371-77 and then Howard broke their back with a pair of second-half touchdowns. Iowa lost 43-24.

They were going to need help to make another Rose Bowl run, but the more generic concept of a strong season was still very much in their grasp. And the Hawkeyes went to work. They survived a road trip to Wisconsin, getting a 10-6 win against a program showing its first stirrings of life under second-year coach Barry Alvarez. Iowa won a tough 24-21 decision against an Illinois team that was ranked 13th at the time, although the Illini subsequently faded to mediocrity.

A 31-21 win at Purdue, with this writer in the stands followed (I was a student at Indiana University and made a road trip to the archrival with my dad). The game was not as competitive as the score makes it appear.

Ohio State was up next, and while this wasn’t a vintage Buckeye team, they were still ranked 13th when Iowa went to Columbus to open the month of November. The Hawkeyes were playing in the backdrop of campus tragedy– a shooting rampage had killed six people and Iowa took the field in all black helmets as a tribute to the victims and the people back home.

Then they played a solid football game in their honor. Rodgers threw a 61-yard touchdown pass to tight end Alan Cross and Iowa led 13-9 at the half. Rodgers hit Danan Hughes with a 50-yard strike that set up a field goal. The defense sacked Ohio State quarterback Kent Graham four times and the result was a 16-9 win.

Iowa was now ranked #10 and they kept the momentum going with a 38-21 home win over Indiana. This was a period when Indiana football was pretty good under the leadership of Bill Mallory and 1991 was his best team. The Hawkeyes didn’t get the help they needed for the Rose Bowl—Michigan rolled to a perfect conference season—but Iowa closed out the season with wins over Northwestern and Minnesota and was ranked ninth in the country.

With a Top 10 ranking, a coach with a pedigree and a fan base that would travel in droves, it’s surprising that Iowa didn’t get more love from the major bowls. They still got a nice trip to San Diego for the Holiday Bowl and a credible opponent in BYU. Cougar quarterback Ty Detmer had won the Heisman in 1990 and enjoyed another good year in ‘91.

Saunders ran for two touchdowns in the first half, but Iowa’s extra-point problems again surfaced and the lead was only 13-0. That point proved to be critical. Detmer threw two second half-touchdown passes…fortunately for Iowa, the Cougars also missed an extra point. In the era prior to 1996, there was no overtime and the Holiday Bowl ended in a 13-13 tie.

Iowa still hung on to a #10 final ranking. Even though this wasn’t a Rose Bowl year, this was a better team than the 1981 and 1990 editions and a forgotten piece of Fry’s fine legacy with the program. But it was also the beginning of the end. Fry would never again have a team this good and Iowa began a descent through the 1990s that saw them bottom out with a three-win season in 1998. Kirk Ferentz then came on board and resumed the ways of steady, consistent winning. 1991 was Hayden Fry’s last hurrah.