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Pat Harty: Seniors got a victory to remember

[ 0 ] November 23, 2013 |

Greg Morris doesn’t usually attend to the player interview session following a game at Kinnick Stadium, but he made an exception after Saturday’s 24-21 victory over Michigan.

The Iowa football team’s veteran equipment manager stood near a wall in the press room and soaked it all in, grinning the whole time.

His son, senior linebacker James Morris, stood about 10 feet away from him, surrounded by reporters and cameras for one last time at Kinnick Stadium. A Senior Day that started with hugs and tears ended in spectacular fashion, with Iowa hanging on to defeat the Wolverines for a record third consecutive time at Kinnick Stadium, after trailing 21-7 at halftime.

In addition to securing a winning season for the 7-4 Hawkeyes, the victory also provided fuel for the argument that Iowa has the best group of starting linebackers in the Big Ten. Fans from Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin would roll their eyes at that suggestion, but James Morris and his two senior cohorts at linebacker — Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey — deserve to be in the discussion.

“It’s hard, but at the end of the day you knew that where James got to today was a culmination of doing everything right and listening and learning and being willing to grow,” Greg Morris said, his voice cracking with emotion.

Each of the three linebackers plays the game differently and is built differently, but together they form a potent triumvirate that shined throughout Saturday’s victory.

“We’ve got great chemistry and we’re good friends on and off the field,” said James Morris, who is one of nine semifinalists for 2013 Lott IMPACT Award. “I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”

It was fitting that one of the three linebackers secured the victory on Senior Day, which Hitchens did by forcing and then recovering a fumble by Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner at the Iowa 31-yard line with 2 minutes, 12 seconds left in the fourth quarter. Hitchens also led Iowa with three tackles for loss, and his eight tackles overall matched Morris for team-high honors.

“We definitely trust each other now,” said Hitchens, a 6-foot-1, 233-pound native of Lorain, Ohio. “We know what (plays) we can and can’t make.”

One of Morris’ eight tackles came on a screen pass in which Michigan gained a respectable 13 yards in the fourth quarter. But it could have been much worse for Iowa if Morris hadn’t shed two blocks before making a tackle in open field.

“You just have to get creative,” Morris said when asked how he shed two blockers.

Kirksey finished with six tackles and combined with junior defensive tackle Carl Davis for Iowa’s only sack in the game.

Greg Morris echoed Hitchens’ sentiments about trust when asked what makes Iowa’s three senior linebackers so productive.

“They help each other a lot, but I think the key thing is they trust each other,” Greg Morris said. “When they’re out there, they know what each other is going to do.

“They all care about each other. They’re the three amigos. They line up and they’re ready to go.”

The three senior linebackers also have the respect and admiration of their teammates.

“They’re studs,” said Iowa senior tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz. “They know the game extremely well and they all play as hard as they can. They all fly around. They love the game. They’re fun to watch.”

The impact from Iowa’s three senior linebackers extends way beyond just making plays.

“They’re probably the best leaders on our team,” Fiedorowicz said. “And there is a reason for that. They go out there every game and play great.”

This is sort of the year of the linebacker in the Big Ten. Trying to pick the top three for postseason recognition will be a difficult task with Chris Borland from Wisconsin, Ryan Shazier from Ohio State and Michigan State’s Max Bullough as three other worthy candidates.

Trying to pick the best group of linebackers in the Big Ten also wouldn’t be easy, but don’t ask Kirksey for his opinion. He’s too smart and too humble to give it, at least publicly.

“We really don’t look at all of that,” said Kirksey, a native of St. Louis. “We just know that we have a great unit. And it keeps us playing hard and improving every weekend.”

All three linebackers are quick to praise the Iowa defensive linemen for making their jobs much easier, which is a luxury that rarely occurred last season.

“They command more attention from the offensive line and that frees us up,” James Morris said.

Greg Morris still has two games left to enjoy with his son as a part of the team. Iowa will close the regular season Friday at Nebraska before playing in a bowl game.

The journey has been rough at times, but it’s a journey that James Morris dreamed of making while growing up in Solon.

He will have played in three bowl games by the time he is finished at Iowa. And he will have been a part of one of the best groups of linebackers in school history.

So it’s easy to see why Greg Morris wanted to soak it all in on Saturday.

Reach Pat Harty at 339-7370 or pharty@press-citizen.com.

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football

About Pat Harty: Columnist Pat Harty has been covering the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Press-Citizen since 1991. Originally from Des Moines, he currently writes columns and covers Hawkeye men's basketball for Hawk Central. View author profile.

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