November 21, 2010
You always know pretty much what you're going to get from a Kirk Ferentz-coached team for the first 58 minutes or so: Conservative offense, solid defense, not a whole lot of points and, most of the time, a slender margin on the scoreboard in one direction or the other. Success is usually defined at the end. In 2008, Iowa had the best running back in the nation and the best defense in the Big Ten, but lost four games decided by three points or less and had to settle for a nice consolation prize in the Outback Bowl. In 2009, a less impressive team on paper turned most of close games, winning four by three points or less and landing the school's highest AP poll finish since 1960.
Again, on paper, 2010 has been a step forward by most measures, especially on offense, where the Hawkeyes are averaging 60 yards and nearly a touchdown better per game than in 2009. Quarterback Ricky Stanzi has thrown more touchdowns, vastly fewer interceptions and improved his pass efficiency by more than 35 points, leaving him with the best rating in the conference. The defense is yielding 15.4 points per game, the exact same number it allowed in '09. As a team, they've even improved to second in the nation in turnover margin. In every significant respect, this is a better team than the one that came within an overtime field goal of the Rose Bowl last year.
Except on the scoreboard, where the current edition has failed to revive the '09 team's uncanny knack for rallying the troops when tied or trailing going into the fourth quarter, which Stanzi and Co. pulled off five times in as many attempts last year, against Northern Iowa (down 13-10 at the start of the fourth), Penn State (down 10-5), Wisconsin (10-10), Michigan State (down 6-3) and Indiana (down 24-14).
This year, they've only rallied from behind once in the fourth quarter, to beat lowly Indiana, and only escaped the upset there when Hoosier receiver Damarlo Belcher dropped a game-winning touchdown in the final minute. In the meantime, the Hawkeyes have blown fourth-quarter leads to Wisconsin, Northwestern and now Ohio State over the last month, and were tied at Arizona before the Wildcats' late touchdown drive to win in September, 34-27.
For the second time in three years, then, Ferentz's team finds itself within two touchdowns of a perfect season on the field, and nowhere near it in the standings. On its final two drives Saturday, Iowa went three-and-out trying to protect a slim lead and then four-and-out trying to reclaim it after Ohio State's go-ahead touchdown with two minutes to play. If it was largely dramatic, late-game heroics that pushed last year's team far beyond expectations, it's the lack thereof that's kept this year's team from living up to them.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.