I was driving home from Ames early Saturday evening, listening to the Iowa-Indiana football game on the car radio.
About six minutes was left in the game, Indiana led 24-21, and I wanted to see the finish instead of hear it. So I stopped at a sports bar/grill in Marshalltown, one of those places with a bank of four large television screens behind the bar, and TVs spread throughout the restaurant. There were even small ones in booths for those who want to make sports-watching an intimate activity.
Though the audio piping through the establishment was that of the Big Ten Network’s Iowa-Indiana telecast, the more-passionate responses from the customers came from the Pittsburgh-Notre Dame game, which was in its second overtime when I walked into the place.
That surprised me, being in Iowa and all. It certainly surprised me more than when Hawkeyes Coach Kirk Ferentz chose to punt on fourth-and-less-than-1 at the Iowa 28 with under five minutes left.
Those who were dialed in to that game openly grumbled about the decision, first-guessing. But it wasn’t like people were angry enough to hurl beer mugs and ketchup bottles at the video screens.
“That’s Ferentz,” one person said softly, shaking his head.
Indiana picked up a pair of first-downs and chewed up all but 18 seconds of the remaining 4:43 after fielding the punt, and you know the rest. Iowa had lost again, and more disgusted head-shaking was on display in the restaurant.
But people resumed eating and drinking, and the end of the Iowa game freed up a lot of screen for Oregon-USC and Oklahoma State-Kansas State and Alabama-LSU. You know, big games.
To fixate on that one decision by the coach is futile, not that it will stop me from doing it. It’s easier to bark about a moment than to dissect a big-picture, and the dissecting can wear you out when it’s done weekly and daily.
This Iowa team isn’t 4-5 because of one questionable in-game decision here or there. The Hawkeyes aren’t without talent, but may not have enough playmakers on either side of the ball to be much more than what they are.
But the nature of competition is that if you lose, you want to do so having taken your best shot. If you’re out-manned or outplayed, so be it. But you don’t want your final batter in a World Series to take a called third strike.
There is a huge difference between aggression and recklessness. If you go against the odds enough times, the odds will crush you. But you can “percentage” yourself into a competitive coma.
Maybe the best mathematical play would have been to punt on that 4th-and-short at your own 28, get a 3-and-out, and get the ball back with three minutes or so left to give you the chance to drive for a tying field goal or even a winning touchdown.
But everyone who was paying attention in that Marshalltown bar-and-grill knew Iowa needed to go for the first-down. Indiana had gained 227 yards over its previous four possessions. The Hawkeyes’ defense was spent. Asking it to force a 3-and-out was more of a challenge than asking the offense for two feet on one play.
I had been at Iowa State earlier Saturday to cover the Oklahoma-ISU game. Watching the end of Saturday’s Iowa game took me back to the last previous time I had been at Jack Trice Stadium for a game, when the Cyclones beat the Hawkeyes 44-41 in triple-overtime.
ISU outgained Iowa by 108 yards. But the Hawkeyes had found their offensive mojo in overtime, going the needed 25 yards for touchdowns twice to match what the Cyclones did.
Iowa had the ball to start the third OT and found itself with a 4th-and-1 at the 16. With the way Iowa State’s offense was moving the ball, you would have felt uneasy with a 41-38 lead and the Cyclones getting the ball back.
But Ferentz sent out the kicker. Iowa got the three points. Iowa State then took its turn, drove for a touchdown, and won the game.
Was Iowa playing the percentages then? Perhaps, though I don’t think so. A win that day would have put a little more shine on a season that ended 7-6. And had the Hawkeyes not gotten the yard for the first-down? Hey, they would have gone down swinging instead of taking a third strike.
Look, we don’t know what would have happened had Iowa gotten the first-down from its 28 Saturday. Maybe it would have gotten stopped on downs or turned the ball over later in the possession. Maybe it would have driven for a game-tying field goal only to lose in overtime. Maybe Indiana would have found some way to hit on another big play once it got the ball back in regulation.
But when you don’t have the horses for a big season, you need to seize those key moments when you can instill confidence and passion into your team and their followers. Give them something to tide them over until more horses are in place and better times seem to be on the horizon.
That doesn’t mean playing cold NFL percentages. That means putting some of the old college spirit into things, telling everybody you’re taking a stand and going for it. The worst that could happen is you tried and failed.
You don’t need a Gallup poll to learn Hawkeye football in 2012 is not fun. In that sports bar in an Iowa town, the hushed voices, frowning faces and shaking heads said it all.