BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Ifs and buts are no longer acceptable when discussing how close Iowa is to being unbeaten in Big Ten football.
The litany of what-ifs from Iowa’s 31-30 loss to Wisconsin two weeks earlier was neutralized Saturday by the pass Indiana’s Damarlo Belcher didn’t cling to with 28 seconds left.
Had Belcher pulled in the 18-yard throw from Ben Chappell instead of letting the ball slip through his grasp and hit the ground, the Hawkeyes would have been down and out instead of owners of an 18-13 victory. But by the same slender margin of error as a missed extra-point, a high snap on a short field goal, or a blank-out against the prospect of a fake punt, Iowa escaped with a win.
For a moment or two, it looked like a touchdown. It so looked like a touchdown. It looked like a spirit-crushing, season-wrecking play for the Hawkeyes, who certainly left themselves vulnerable to getting crushed and wrecked.
But Belcher didn’t pull in the ball.
“A few players said it was a similar feeling to what we had last year in the UNI game,” said Iowa safety Brett Greenwood, who was closer than any player to Belcher on that fateful drop. “You have to have the ball bounce your way.”
Oh, it can be a narrow line between relief and horror, between remaining a contender or becoming an also-ran, between talking about cleaning up mistakes or getting buried by an avalanche of criticism.
The world says you should beat Indiana by 17 points. Someone forgets to tell the Hoosiers, who played to win.
“We’re in a conference that’s competitive and tough, playing on the road,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. “If you think things like this won’t happen, you’re a fool.”
Iowa was the Tostitos Team of the Week after its 37-6 mauling of Michigan State the week before. Saturday, they were the Team of the Day in IU’s Memorial Stadium by a margin thinner than a tortilla chip.
Nine penalties and seemingly as many failed red-zone opportunities. A missed 22-yard field goal and a continuation of the team’s dicey kickoff-return coverage. They all turned out to be blemishes, not lesions.
Ricky Stanzi was 1-for-5 passing for one yard between the Indiana 10 and the goal line. Iowa was inside the Indiana 20 four times, and had just three made field goals and the one miss to show for it.
You’ve probably heard it said that good teams find ways to win when they don’t bring their “A” games. That’s what Iowa did.
The Hawkeyes trailed 13-12 with the ball at their own 12 and 3:42 left to try to do no worse than get a field goal. Stanzi went boom and boom again to Derrell Johnson-Koulianos for gains of 21 and 15 yards. Then he went ka-boom on a perfect pump-and-go to hit Marvin McNutt in stride for 52 yards and a touchdown.
“The reason that play worked,” McNutt said, “is because Ricky threw a great ball.”
This was a condensed version of the Indiana game at Kinnick Stadium last year, when Iowa trailed 24-14 after three quarters and won, 42-24. Stanzi played a brutal three-fourths of the game in that one with five interceptions, then was golden when it mattered most.
Here, this year, he wasn’t getting picked off ad nauseam. But he wasn’t nearly as crisp as he’s been through most of this season. Until … boom, boom, and ka-boom. When it was produce or lose, Stanzi got it done.
And Iowa got this done without running back Adam Robinson, who was back in Iowa City not absorbing any blows after a concussion the week before. Robinson was averaging 100 rushing yards a game.
However, Marcus Coker was a driving force in replacing Robinson, piling up 129 yards on 22 carries. For the first time since mid-September, Iowa again has a No. 2 running back who can add to its offensive versatility.
“Make no mistake,” Stanzi said, “Adam Robinson is the MVP of our offense. We need to have him out there.”
They’ll have him next week at Northwestern. Maybe they’ll have the rest of their normal attack at Northwestern, too.
They better. Northwestern isn’t Indiana. And Ohio State is the week after that.