In 2006 I was in grad school at UNI. It was one of those programs where all the classes are at night, so people working full-time could attend. But, about every other month or so, as a part of the program, there were these dreaded Saturday classes. Some were all day events, while others were just a half day. The only redeeming quality of these classes were the free (and by free I mean paid for out of my tuition money) breakfasts. An arrangement of delicious pastries, biscotti, and coffee set out to enjoy while learning about decision making models or something like that.
One fall Saturday was particularly difficult to be in class all morning when Iowa was slated for the early 11:00 game. Some context first…Iowa was ranked number 15 and had finished the first half of the season 5-1. There was a thrilling goal-line stand against Syracuse, a couple of thrashings of some lesser talented team, and a tough loss to Ohio State. Expectations were still high for the Hawkeyes as Iowa had a star senior quarterback that was supposed to lead the team to success. So, needless to say I was excited to watch my Hawkeyes play a lowly Indiana team and become bowl eligible.
Class of course went until noon meaning I would miss at least the first quarter and possibly more. Some tried to follow the game while in class on their phone, but in 2006 the smartest of phones was barely capable of showing more than the score. At the time class was over the score was announced and Iowa was up 21-7. I rushed to my car, turned on the radio, and listened to the game on my short drive home. My wife was home watching something like, but not necessarily, Drumline, but let me switch over to the game as soon as I got home. I don’t think I need to describe the horror that I watched the next two and a half hours as one James Hardy humiliated Iowa’s secondary.
Season over. Worst loss in the history of Iowa football. Fire every coach ever. Iowa had been a team climbing the hill from mediocrity to excellence and was nearing the apex after 4 great seasons, then suddenly took a huge tumble. And they didn’t stop with a loss to the Hoosiers. They tumbled and tumbled and tumbled back down to the wastelands of 6-6 mediocrity; a place they would stay until Daniel Murray made a 31-yard field goal to beat an undefeated Penn State on November 8, 2008 and Iowa started to re-ascend.
It’s amazing how one game, one moment, can define a program for years. One loss to Indiana can send a team on a 9-game conference losing streak.
The loss on Northwestern felt like that. Not just a loss, but a team tumbling down towards mediocrity after almost 2 years playing outstanding football. It confirmed that last week was not a fluke. This Iowa team has the talent, the favorable schedule, and is even putting up the numbers to be an elite Big Ten Champion caliber team. But the magic is missing.
The magic could be senior leadership. The Hawkeyes have a senior laden roster and a lot of experienced starters. When Iowa needed a senior to step up and make a play at the end of the game, there was DJK dropping a pass along the side line…there was Adrian Clayborn kneeling on the sidelines gasping for air…there was Ricky Stanzi throwing a check-down underneath with 15 seconds left that if completed would likely end the game (a mistake he made less than a month ago).
The magic could be an amazing game winning drive (like there was against Penn State in 2008 or Michigan State in 2009). It took Iowa 15 plays and 1:16 to drive just 35 yards that set up a desperate Hail Mary. Against MSU last year it took just 4 plays to gain 39 yards and 6 more to go the last 31 yards for the TD.
The magic could be a goal-line stand, an interception, a sack on 4th down, a knocked down pass…anything to stop a team that needs a touchdown late in the game. Iowa had 2 chances to stop 80-plus-yard drives and failed on Saturday.
Iowa actually didn’t play that bad for the most part. Adam Robinson went over 100 yards for the sixth time this year. He also had 4 receptions for 16 yards. He has been the most solid and consistent performer on the offense. Probably second behind him, has been Allen Reisner who had 6 catches for 66 yards. He had once ridiculous catch in the fourth quarter and a clutch first down grab on a 4th-and-2 on the final failed drive. DJK played okay, and had a long 70-yard touchdown reception and is closing in another record. McNutt had a great catch on a long desperation 4th down.
Until the fourth quarter, the defense kept Persa in check and under pressure. The defense line was getting good push up front and forcing Persa to scramble and throw passes well after receivers had to break their routes. Usually this means good things for the defense, but Persa was playing lights out on the move.
But playing not that bad is not good enough.