TUCSON, Ariz. — The easiest, sunniest spin to put on what happened to Iowa’s football team here Saturday night is to point to the program’s history under Kirk Ferentz.
Sure, the Hawkeyes lost 34-27 at Arizona. But hey, have they ever gone on to a big season without losing or at least struggling in September? They lost to Iowa State in September 2002 and got routed at Arizona State in September 2004. Shared the Big Ten title both times.
Iowa lost at Pittsburgh in September 2008, but was quite a team in November and January. The Hawkeyes wheezed past Northern Iowa last September, but whooshed to an 11-win season. So there’s that on which to cling.
Fine. You can say special teams may have deprived Iowa of a potentially special season, those things will get fixed, and it will be the same old Iowa once the Big Ten season is in full gear. That may be true. It’s hard to look at a 7-point road loss to a very good Pac-10 team as proof the sky has fallen.
But there better be considerable fixing, or this will go down as a Hawkeyes team that was overhyped. And that means more than special teams.
That’s a good starting place, though, seeing how that’s where Iowa’s chance to stay unbeaten for another two or three or several weeks was crushed.
Good golly. You give up a blocked punt for what effectively was one Wildcat touchdown, you give up a kickoff return for what absolutely was another Arizona TD, and you get an extra-point kick blocked in a critical moment. That’s a rotten month, but this all happened in one game. That’s not what Top Ten teams do.
“If we don’t get that straightened out,” Ferentz said, “it’s going to be a long year.”
OK, so there’s that. But don’t pretend the other two units, offense and defense, didn’t have plenty to be concerned about.
Iowa’s defense was directly responsible for only 13 points, yes. It put six points on the board itself when end Broderick Binns made a fabulous pick of a Nick Foles pass and ran it home for a score. Still, it did surrender 366 yards, most of it on Foles’ throwing.
Had it been a prizefight, Foles would have beaten the Hawkeye defense by decision. Iowa landed a knockdown blow with Binns’ big play, but Foles otherwise stayed out of trouble and scored with all sorts of jabs off his quick-release stuff on short and intermediate routes. He often got Arizona from its 20-yard line to midfield lickety-split.
After the Hawkeyes came all the way back from down 27-7 to tie the game, Foles floated a long pass into the arms of David Roberts for 38 yards to the Iowa 34. That was the first play of the possession. All that momentum the visitors had worked so hard to wrest away was suddenly gone again. Actually, it suddenly disappeared when Trent Mossbrucker’s PAT kick was blocked after Binns shocked the ESPN world with his touchdown.
Eight plays later, the Wildcats finished their drive with Foles’ 4-yard TD toss to Bug Wright. The vaunted Hawkeye defense didn’t do any vaunting when it was most required.
Foles was the best quarterback in Tucson this night. He had the horrible pick-six, yes, but good quarterbacks can shake those off and win. Like Stanzi did four times last year, including against Arizona in Kinnick Stadium.
Stanzi had a pick-6 of his own, of course. Many thought Marvin McNutt should have caught the pass that went off his hands and into those of Trevin Wade for an 85-yard return and a 14-0 Arizona lead five minutes into the game. Stanzi thought otherwise. He called the pass “high, wobbly, a tough one to catch.”
Whoever was at fault, it happened, and it left the Hawkeyes on their heels for virtually the entire game. It was a weird, game-altering play in a night full of them, and Stanzi did throw three touchdown passes. But when it was time for him to try to match Foles’ heroics and take his team downfield on its final possession to force an overtime, Iowa looked uglier on offense than it has in a long time.
The Hawkeyes went from 2nd-and-3 at their 44 to 3rd-and-12 after a sack, 3rd-and-17 after a false start that voided a sack, 4th-and-25 after a sack, and turning it over on downs after — you guessed it — another sack.
Arizona blitzed and blitzed, Iowa’s blocking was little more than a rumor, and Stanzi was never able to as much as throw the ball away.
He got sacked six times overall. Iowa’s O-line got anointed as being effective a bit too soon. Arizona gameplanned to eliminate Iowa’s running game and did so with apparent ease. Adam Robinson ran through Eastern Illinois and Iowa State. Here, he simply didn’t matter. He had five yards on 10 carries. Nickel-and-dime, indeed.
This is big-time college football. The good teams push back, especially at their home in a game that means so much to them. Truly great teams, the rare and special ones, weather that and prevail.
No, losing this game was no shame. Arizona, which began the week as a slight underdog, was a slight favorite in Las Vegas by the weekend. It’s a good, physical team. It may have as much a chance of winning the Pac-10 as anyone.
But you and I know there were a lot of true-believers in Hawkdom, people who thought this Iowa club had the right stuff and the right schedule to stay unbeaten for a while, maybe make a run at a little immortality. It would have to get past that troublesome September game in Tucson, but if it did and it progressed as it so often has done …
Nope. Not when opponents can block your punts or run one of your kickoffs back untouched. There’s never been a special team with special teams like that.