The 1980s had been good to the Iowa Hawkeyes. Hayden Fry took the program to the Rose Bowl in 1981 and 1985 and went to eight bowls overall in a nine-year stretch. But 1989 had been the outlier year, when the Hawkeyes struggled to a 5-6 finish. The program needed a comeback season and the 1990 Iowa football team provided it, reaching the third Rose Bowl of Fry’s tenure.
Matt Rodgers was the best quarterback in the Big Ten and he led an offense that averaged over 35ppg, ranking 13th in the nation. The backfield was a two-pronged attack, with 1,000-yard rusher Nick Bell and Tony Stewart, who ran for 844 more.
The defense wasn’t quite as good, ranking 57th in the country, but still had noteworthy talent. Merton Hanks was an All-Conference defensive back and future Pro Bowl player with the San Francisco 49ers. Melvin Foster was one of the Big Ten’s top linebackers, and senior linebacker John Derby provided a stable veteran presence inside.
Iowa was unranked to start the year and the 2-1 record in non-conference did nothing to change minds. The wins over Cincinnati and Iowa State were nothing special, the blowout loss at Miami nothing to be alarmed over. It was when Big Ten games started on the first weekend of October that the Hawkeyes indicated this team might be special.
Michigan State was ranked #18 in the country when Iowa went to East Lansing and pulled out a 12-7 win. Two weeks later they were back in the state, visiting Ann Arbor. Rodgers went 27/37 for 276 yards and saved the best for last, an 85-yard drive that pulled out a 24-23 upset over Michigan. Iowa was 3-0 in the Big Ten with two big road wins over contenders.
By November 3, Iowa and Illinois were both 4-0 and had a two-game lead on the rest of the conference. They were going head-to-head in Champaign with the inside track to the Big Ten title on the line. The Illini were ranked fifth in the country and had aspirations that could reach beyond Pasadena.
The Hawkeyes turned the tables. Illinois fumbled at midfield on their first possession and Bell promptly rumbled 44 yards for a touchdown. It was the start of a day where Bell would roll up 178 yards rushing and two touchdowns. Iowa had a shocking 28-0 lead by the early second quarter. They scored on a halfback option pass by Stewart and off a fake field goal. The final was 54-28.
Iowa moved up to #6 nationally and in a chaotic year for college football, they now had national hopes. Those ended a week later at home against Ohio State when the defensive shortcomings caught up with the Hawkeyes. They led 26-14 in the fourth quarter. The Buckeyes drove into scoring range three times and twice scored touchdowns, the final one a three-yard TD pass with a second to play. Iowa lost 27-26.
The Hawkeyes beat Purdue the following week and entered the final week of the season with a half-game lead on Ohio State. The Buckeyes lost at Michigan and by the time Iowa’s game at Minnesota was in the second quarter, the Hawkeyes knew they were Rose Bowl-bound. They lost 31-24 to a pretty good Gophers team. The loss might not have denied them the Pasadena trip, but it did cost Iowa an outright Big Ten title. They instead shared the crown with Michigan, Michigan State and Illinois.
Iowa had lost both of their previous Rose Bowls under Fry and both of them decisively. The third time did not prove to be the charm. They faced eighth-ranked Washington and the 46-34 loss was not as close as the final score makes it appear.
Even with the Rose Bowl loss, even with the stumbling to the finish line, 1990 was still a fine comeback season for Iowa football. It re-established momentum for Fry and he made five bowl games in the next eight years before retiring at the end of the 1998 season.