Minnesota 27, Iowa 24: The Song Remains The Same

* Well played (and well built), Minnesota.  Before engaging in any sort of self-flagellation, let me take a moment to doff my cap to Minnesota, who played hard and well for sixty minutes.  They entered the game with a gameplan seemingly built on exploiting Iowa's weaknesses and followed it well.  They played with passion and with flair (that onside kick call was genius and beautifully executed) and almost exactly like you would expect from a team that had nothing else to play for and that hadn't won a trophy game in four years.  Bully for them.  And, also, bully to the university (and the state) for building such a fine stadium: The Bank really is pretty impressive.  The viewing angles were very good, the concourses were large and easy to maneuver in, the view of the downtown skyline in the open end was excellent, and the Jumbotron was impressive (and remarkably well-used; unlike most Big Ten venues, Minnesota regularly showed controversial or disputed plays on the screen, which was a nice surprise).  And I'm sure it's even better when I can feel my toes.

* It feels like an insult to even call it "deja vu" at this point.  If this was Hollywood, the script would be rejected for being too derivative.  If this was high school, the teacher would fail you for committing plagiarism.  For the fifth sixth (I guess we should include Indiana in this stat, too) time this year, Iowa took a lead (or a tie) in a close game in the fourth quarter... and for the fifth time this year they coughed it up and lost.  The elements of this loss were virtually identical to the others, too.  Bad special teams plays?  Check -- see those persistently dreadful kickoffs.  Lack of defensive pressure?  Check -- see the inability to get any pressure on Adam Weber or slow down the Minnesota ground game at all.  Dreadful two-minute offense?  Check (kinda) -- we didn't really get a chance to see how this would go awry since Marcus Coker promptly fumbled the ball on the first snap of Iowa's last drive.  And so on.  At this point, Iowa's losses feel less like football games and more like watching Greek tragedies: you know what sort of horrible shit is coming, but you're utterly powerless to stop it.

* What a difference a year makes.  A year ago, the Iowa football team was many things -- they were road warriors (5-1 away from Kinnick, including wins at Penn State, Wisconsin, Iowa State, Michigan State, and the Orange Bowl, as well as a narrow loss at Ohio State), they were clutch (five wins in games where they trailed or were tied in the fourth quarter), and they were closers (they outscored opponents 121-62 in the fourth quarter last year).  A year later, this Iowa football team is none of those things.  They're 2-3 away from Kinnick, with the only wins being a brutally ugly (and frankly lucky) win at Indiana and a way-too-close-for-comfort victory at the Big House, and they've only played well on the road in fits and spurts (a quarter against Arizona here, a few quarters against Michigan there, a drive or two against Northwestern and Minnesota, etc.).  They're not clutch -- just look at the litany of fourth-quarter collapses.  And they're not closers (they've actually outscored opponents 80-79 in the fourth quarter, a figure that seems like it should be far worse).  What happened?  Too many key players lost to graduation and injuries?  Too many bad coaching decisions?  Too much bad luck?  All of the above?  All of that, plus players who were previously extraordinary becoming suddenly ordinary (examples abound on both sides of the ball, but the two most prominent examples are probably at quarterback and on the defensive line, where prior excellence has turned into a whole lot of present putridness/mediocrity).  Add it up and you have a recipe for disaster -- or a 7-5 season full of gut-wrenching losses.

* So what now?  Well, a bowl game awaits, and possibly one as good as the Outback Bowl.  A game like that is probably more than this team deserves after their nightmarish November, but (a) bowl games are often not about a team getting what they deserve, and (b) the middle class of the Big Ten is crowded with 7-5 teams entering the bowl season on losing streaks (Michigan and Northwestern enter on two-game losing streaks and Penn State's lost two of their final three).  If the Outback (or Gator) thinks Iowa fans will still turn up in droves to watch their team play on January 1, then they'll still get the nod to play in one of those games, three-game losing streak be damned.  Hopefully the month off allows the coaches and players to identify whatever broke in this team in November and end the season on a relative high note and build a little momentum for 2011.  Look, obviously a win in whatever bowl game Iowa gets sent to isn't going to salvage this season, a season that began with a top ten ranking and dreams of a national title or a Rose Bowl trip.  Beating, say, Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl isn't going to erase the disappointment of the last month -- but it would be a hell of a lot better to head into the off-season off a win than yet another dispiriting loss.  As far as the future beyond that, anyone expecting mass bloodlettings is probably deluding themselves.  For the short term, I'd settle for some long-term certainty at the defensive coordinator position and a focus on improving the perpetually disappointing special teams (which might mean creating a dedicated special teams coach).  That would be a start.

* Finally...this year's been a disappointment for many reasons, but one that really stings is the way that it's tainted the memory of this senior class.  Stanzi, Clayborn, Ballard, DJK, et al. were the driving forces behind countless great memories that we have from the 2008 and 2009 seasons and it would be a shame if their enduring legacy is not those memories, but the memory of the underwhelming and frustrating 2010 season, in which they were all (sans DJK, really) far lesser than they were in the past.  It was a lot of fun to watch this group of players take Iowa from the painful lows of the 2006 and 2007 seasons to the euphoric highs of the (late) 2008 and (entire) 2009 seasons.  It was unique to see the core of a team so unchanged for 3-4 years (although perhaps we overlooked the absences of some of the guys who did depart before this year...) and it was hugely enjoyable to follow a group of players with so much personality and so many great individual stories.  At the moment, it's hard not to feel let down and disappointed, but I hope that as time passes those wounds can heal.  I can't tell you what to think or how to feel -- just know that if you choose to remember them more for their failures than their successes, it probably says a lot about who you are as a fan than how good (or bad) they were. 

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