COLUMBUS, Ohio — Those roses that were in Ohio State fans’ hats and hands, that were in bright red on the Ohio Stadium video screens – what a cruel and thorny tease to Iowa.
How close could you come to a Rose Bowl berth without gliding to Pasadena next month?
How could you respond so positively and purposefully to weeklong doubt from the outside world and a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit against an OSU dynasty, and not see those roses thrown at your feet instead of those of the Buckeyes?
Iowa’s 27-24 overtime loss to Ohio State almost, almost, almost transcended what eluded the Hawkeyes this mid-November Saturday. The Hawkeyes oozed with character from pillar to post in the Horseshoe, never flinching, wincing or shrinking against a Buckeyes team that was deigned the Big Ten champions before this game ever kicked off.
It’s been said that sometimes it’s better to get blown out than have your heart cut to shreds by a razor-thin margin. That’s Horseshoe horse doo-doo.
Iowa claims no so-called moral victory, but gave what sure looked and felt like a victorious performance here. It simply didn’t win. A very fine team opponent withstood what the Hawkeyes threw at them and made one more play in the end, a 39-yard field goal by a former pro soccer player.
Sometimes the other team simply finds a way to win. Winning programs tend to do that, as Iowa has showed on many occasions this season.
So the pain of what might have been will torment Hawkdom now, on New Year’s when Iowa fans see Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, and for many years to follow.
But if you have to end on the wrong side of a score, is there a better way to do it than the Hawkeyes’ way on Saturday?
Come on. James Vandenberg was ridiculously good. A first-time starter at quarterback in a game of this importance in a 105,000-seat concrete wall of sound, he played as well as any opposing quarterback has played here in at least two years if not longer.
USC freshman quarterback Matt Barkley had a great final drive here in September. Even with three interceptions, Vandenberg was pretty wonderful over four quarters.
"He played awesome," said Marvin McNutt, who caught Vandenberg’s two touchdown passes. "He put us in great position to win this game."
Receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos said Vandenberg "lived" in the Iowa football complex last week. "He ate his food there. A couple times he texted me while he was watching film there. He prepared like a starter.
"He was cool, calm, never got too excited, never got down. He really reminded me of Rick (Stanzi) this week."
The kid was supposed to be raw meat for the mad dogs of the heralded OSU defense. Instead, he was as tough as a two-buck steak.
So it starts with Vandy, but it runs across the squad. Beat-up freshman running back Adam Robinson came off the injury list to carry the ball 20 times and give as much punishment as he took. Iowa’s offensive line had one of its best days of the season in what seemed like a most unlikely place to have it.
The 49-yard Brandon Saine TD run that gave Ohio State a 24-10 lead was the day’s darkest moment for Iowa followers until the game’s final play. For the Hawkeyes, Saine’s scamper only inspired more resolve.
Johnson–Koulianos took the subsequent kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown to yank momentum away from the Buckeyes.
"I saw it in my head before it actually happened," McNutt said.
Then Iowa’s defense forced OSU to try a 47-yard field goal, and soccer player-turned-football placekicker Devin Barclay bent a 47-yarder wide left.
Then Vandenberg and company rolled 70 yards for a game-tying drive with 2:37 left. It was a bookend to Iowa’s game-winning drive at Michigan State last month. It meant Iowa had 24 points against a defense that had allowed just 11 a game. It meant the Hawkeyes were trying to grab every rose in Columbus.
But the Hawkeyes went four-and-out in overtime, and the Buckeyes went three-and-that 39-yarder by Barclay. Hearts don’t break much harder in sports than Iowa’s when the former member of the Tampa Bay Mutiny, San Jose Earthquakes, DC United and Columbus Crew made his biggest impact in sports as a 26-year-old Ohio State Buckeye.
Coming so close hurts so much more than getting lapped. But the thing is, the Hawkeyes fully expected to battle for four quarters and beyond if required. So they weren’t surprised about their effort, just downhearted by the result.
"Our attitude was we’ve earned our way into this game," Ferentz said about his team’s mindset all week. "We knew what was on the line. We felt like we earned our right to play."
Strangely, Iowa may have gained more national stature from the way it played in this defeat than in how it stacked wins in its first nine games.
If that’s true, it only means many weren’t paying attention. The Hawkeyes aren’t a great college football team. But they have genuine greatness in them, and it was displayed yet again Saturday. Even in defeat.