No matter the pedigree or tradition, every season unfolds in manifold ways for every football team.
It was true for the Iowa Hawkeyes in 2013 and, yes, the LSU Tigers went through their periods for fits and starts before congealing into a team that was able to withstand the loss of its starting quarterback and still win with a long TD pass on the last series of its season finale.
Pedigree and tradition bring inherent advantages and lofty expectations, but LSU coach Les Miles knows teams must grow and improve if it wants to have a joyous banquet at the end of the year.
“A season takes an evolution and you must, you must improve,” Miles said.
LSU lost quarterback Zach Mettenberger while trailing Arkansas and going into the final series needing a TD. True freshman Anthony Jennings finished a 99-yard TD drive with a 49-yard TD pass to freshman Travin Dural. It was just the longest scoring drive in school history.
That’s the obvious example for LSU. The Tigers started the season with a smoldering crater left by the early departure of 11 underclassmen into the NFL draft, including defensive back Tyrann Mathieu, defensive ends Barkevious Mingo, linebacker Kevin Minter and safety Eric Reid. All have been starters/contributors/impact players for their NFL teams.
(Yes, this is where tradition helps maintain the flow high-pedigree players. LSU will never be hurting, but you have to admit, 11 underclassmen is a truckload.)
“I think there’s one quality you must have in major-college football if you tend to have a quality season,” Miles said, “you must improve. I think our football team has done that. We’ve moved people around and came of age in several spots. The veteran pieces we turned to and counted on have come through.”
The Tigers won three of their last four with the only loss coming at then-No. 1 Alabama, 38-17.
With the Hawkeyes, the improvement throughout the season ends up being the top headline. When Iowa finished 4-8 in 2012, the Hawkeyes didn’t improve in the second half of the season, Injuries piled up and the Hawkeyes’ roster just wasn’t built for adversity. During a 0-for-6 finish, Iowa was manhandled by Penn State, Northwestern and Michigan. That stretch also included losses to Indiana and Purdue — a 27-24 crusher at Kinnick Stadium — and a 0-for-4 November.
With the shadow of 4-8, Iowa also entered 2013 with more questions than answers.
“We came in after a disappointing season with a new quarterback and a lot of new pieces,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “The team really improved and developed. I thought we competed hard basically each and every week.
“The key thing for us, typically, is we have to improve during the course of the year. I think our team did that in the second half of the season and finished strongly with a couple of good wins, including one on the road. That was critical to us.”
When a football team grows in ways that show up in victories, it’s often incremental. You can make that argument with Iowa, which isn’t able to recruit that one player who immediately makes all the difference.
Ferentz often refers to his program as “developmental.” Let’s take a look at some of those developmental snapshots from 2013.
– Iowa went into the Iowa State game in Ames with first-year quarterback Jake Rudock against the first hostile road crowd of his career. The Hawkeyes led 20-7 at the beginning of the fourth quarter before they went on the longest scoring drive Iowa has generated in nearly two and a half seasons.
The 15-play, 73-yarder took 7:38 off the clock and gave the Hawkeyes a 27-7 lead when Rudock broke in from the 1-yard line. It was the longest scoring drive for the Hawkeyes since a 16-play, 71-yard drive that lasted 8:04 against the Cyclones in 2010. This was running when ISU knew Iowa was going to run and completing passes on passing downs that everyone knew were passing downs.
On a third-and-6, Rudock hit tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz for 6 yards and a first down at ISU’s 36. On third-and-5, from ISU’s 31, everyone thought Iowa would pass. The Hawkeyes stepped out of the two-TE, fullback heavy set and put three WRs on the field. Offensive coordinator Greg Davis called a run and Mark Weisman went 12 yards. It all clicked.
– Iowa went into Ohio State as an 18-point underdog. Iowa led 17-10 at halftime. The lead crumbled. Ohio State took over in the second half, outscoring Iowa 24-7 and holding the Hawkeyes to less than seven minutes of possession time in the second half.
Cue the moral victory song and dance. It’s not a notion that sits well on either side, not with coaches/players nor with fans. You could argue, however, Iowa learned more about itself at Ohio Stadium than it did at any point leading up to the OSU game. Yes, Iowa did win at Minnesota, when the Gophers had a ton of momentum and the school openly called for the “We hate Iowa chant,” but Iowa had won at Minnesota.
“The guys focused and prepared well this week, and it’s going to have to be the same next week and for the next five opponents,” Ferentz said, calling on the coach’s prerogative for foreshadowing. “If we do a good job and understand that, we have a chance to have a good football team, but we can’t take our foot off the gas at all.”
– After Ohio State, the Hawkeyes went into the “flip” part of their schedule, the part where the incremental showed up in victories.
Iowa watched a 10-point lead flame out against Northwestern before it scored on the first possession of overtime. Then, defensive tackle Louis Trinca-Pasat flushed NU quarterback Kain Colter out of the pocket, missed the elusive 200-pounder and then double-backed through some traffic and bear hugged him to the turf to end the game.
The Hawkeyes, who snapped a four-game Big Ten losing streak at Kinnick, rushed the field, ran up to the locker room and sang the school fight song loudly, brutally and very, very quickly, as is tradition under Ferentz.
Arguably the fuel for Iowa’s 3-1 November was clutch plays from the defense. Against NU, freshman cornerback Desmond King recovered a muffed pitch with the Wildcats driving for a chance at a winning field goal.
“The critique-o-meter is out there, and that comes with the territory, but it just shows you what a fine line it is between winning and losing, too, and I think that’s the bottom line,” Ferentz said. “If there is any bad that comes out of winning, you just have to stay grounded and stay focused on what’s going to help you win.”
Iowa’s defense also forced clutch turnovers against Michigan and Nebraska. Senior linebacker Anthony Hitchens might’ve made the play of the season with a strip and fumble recovery against UM quarterback Devin Gardner. Hitchens made his play on the Michigan sideline and Iowa wound down the final 2:12 to pull off a 24-21 come-from-behind victory.
– Against Michigan, Iowa fell behind 21-7 at halftime. During his short coming-out-of-the-tunnel halftime interview for radio, Ferentz said Iowa needed to get something done quickly.
Less than five minutes later, sophomore wide receiver Tevaun Smith finished off his 55-yard TD pass, which included a one-handed juggling catch and an ankle-breaking move to the sideline.
That was the sophomore quarterback Rudock finding sophomore Smith. That was two underclassmen making a play that pulled Iowa out of the dumpster.
– Nebraska had just scored to pull within 24-17 with 11 minutes left in a game that Iowa had, for the most part, dominated.
This was the regular-season finale. Iowa built a lead at Lincoln, where it hadn’t won since 1943. Then, Rudock suffered a sprained knee, his good knee not the one he sprained against Wisconsin three games earlier.
Iowa’s defense came up with a timely turnover – linebacker Christian Kirksey with the strip and Trinca-Pasat with the recovery — and in trotted at quarterback redshirt freshman C.J. Beathard.
Beathard made a run check at the line of scrimmage that resulted in running back Jordan Canzeri rushing 37 yards to Nebraska’s 2. Mark Weisman finished the drive and that basically sealed Iowa’s victory, perhaps its most impressive this season.
As the backup QB last season, Rudock didn’t play a single down. This season, Beathard coordinated the landing for a win at Nebraska.
This is a standout example of the incremental growth Iowa made from November 2012 to November 2013. It’s also the type of development you don’t notice until you notice it. Iowa had a lot of that in ’13.
Did I miss any noticeable growth moments for the Hawkeyes in 2013?
Let me know some specific moments where you thought Iowa showed it took 4-8 to heart and came out the other side a stronger, better program.