Iowa 18, Indiana 13: The Ugliest Win Is Still Better Than The Prettiest Loss

So that was ugly.

* Red zone, more like plague zone.  Football games are so complex that you can rarely boil them down to a single, deciding factor -- and then there's a game like yesterday's, where the red zone offense stands head and shoulders above the rest as the factor in explaining why the game was the way it was.  Iowa got inside the Indiana 10-yard line on four separate occasions yesterday; they came away with all of nine points from those trips.  If you're looking for one reason why that game was an uncomfortably close affair and not a one-sided rout, look no further.  It doesn't take a genius to see that if you're settling for field goals that often, you're going to make it damn hard on yourself to win.

So what went wrong?  On the surface, Iowa's offensive stats look fine -- great, even.  22 first downs, 445 yards of offense, 290 yard passing, 155 yards rushing, only two punts all day... they certainly had no trouble moving the ball between the 20s; they just hit a brick wall when they got inside the Indiana 20-yard line.  So what was the problem? There's no silver bullet: it was a toxic cocktail of bad playcalling, bad execution, inopportune penalties, and (to be fair) a little good defense on Indiana's part.  The playcalling has taken a lot of flak, and not without reason.

RZ Opportunity #1: incomplete, incomplete, incomplete, 23-yard FG (made)
RZ Opportunity #2: rush for 4, rush for 4, incomplete, rush for -1, incomplete, 27-yard FG (made)
RZ Opportunity #3: rush for 12, timeout, rush for 1, pass for 1, incomplete, 22-yard FG (missed)
RZ Opportunity #4: rush for 2, incomplete, penalty for -5, penalty for -5, timeout, pass for 8

After riding Coker to the cusp of the end zone on the first drive, Iowa opted for three straight passes -- all incomplete. On the second drive, after Coker got them to the Indiana 9, they opted for two passes and only one run.  On the third drive, after Coker got the ball to the Indiana 5, they opted for two straight passes.  Granted, rushing Coker wasn't a guaranteed fix for Iowa's red zone woes -- half of his six RZ carries went for two yards or less.  But when you're that close and you have a big running back that punishing and you have an offensive line that's been doing a pretty good job... well, a few more runs don't seem too outlandish.  

But playcalling alone wasn't to blame for all of the red zone woes.  Iowa may have gone fade route-happy near the red zone, but with slightly better throws from Stanzi, those are touchdowns -- the receivers were open.  Similarly, you can't completely ignore the efforts of the Indiana defense; overall, they're not a good unit and they weren't even particularly good on the whole yesterday, but in the red zone they did make a few tackles and stops that, in other games, against other teams, could have been (and have been) touchdowns.

So do we take much out of Iowa's miserable red zone offense yesterday?  Probably not.  Until yesterday, they'd had a pretty exceptional offense in the red zone and people were (rightly) lauding Ken O'Keefe for dialing up the right plays at the right times in those situations.  One of the reasons Meyer was able to almost double his season total for field goals made yesterday was because the Iowa offense had been so efficient about turning red zone opportunities into touchdowns.  One bad performance shouldn't totally overshadow a season's worth of work.

* MOAR COKER.  Both in the context of this particular game and in the context of the season as a whole, really.  Clearly, if Adam Robinson is healthy, he should be the starter and get the bulk of the carries -- he's undoubtedly the best running back on the team.   But Coker has certainly showed enough that if A-Rob needs a rest, Coker can certainly handle 5-10 carries a game in relief.  Yesterday, Coker had 22 carries for 129 yards, but despite blowing up for 102 yards on 15 carries in the first half, he was curiously absent from the second-half gameplan -- just 7 carries for 27 yards.  Still, regardless of his bizarre disappearing act in the second half (which was certainly a function of a lack of opportunities, rather than anything he did wrong), he had a very fine day and became the third-straight true freshman running back to lead* Iowa in rushing yards against Indiana: 

Jewel Hampton (2008): 22 carries, 114 yards, 3 TD
Brandon Wegher (2009): 25 carries, 118 yards, 3 TD

* -- Or almost lead; Greene had one more yard than Hampton in 2008.  

There were definite echoes of Shonn Greene in Coker's hard-charging, punishing running yesterday and it should be a lot of fun to see him grow and develop over the next few years.

* Defense?  Game-saving stop?  Whenever you're ready... On the whole, it's hard to find too much fault with the Iowa defense yesterday -- they held Indiana's high-powered offense to just 313 yards and 13 points and largely contained Ben Chappell -- 27/46, 222 yards, 0/1 TD/INT.  They forced a turnover and five Indiana punts -- not a bad day's effort.  That said, Iowa won yesterday because the offense made the big plays in the fourth quarter and Stanzi rediscovered his fourth quarter mojo, not because the defense made the big stops.  On Indiana's second-to-last drive, after forcing Indiana into 2nd-and-24, they allowed Indiana to get a first down and bleed more clock -- troublesome, since Iowa was still down 13-12 at that point and needed to get the ball back.  On the final drive, the defense didn't force a turnover or make a key stop to win the game so much as they simply dodged a bullet when Belcher dropped that touchdown catch.  

Look, did they play well on the whole?  Yes.  Should it have mattered what they did in the fourth quarter if the offense had taken care of business in the red zone?  Nope.  But for the third time this year, when they absolutely, positively needed to get a stop in the fourth quarter, they didn't quite get it done.  It didn't cost them a win, as it did against Arizona and Wisconsin, but it's still a little troubling -- and further evidence that this team will go as far as the offense, not the defense, can take it. 

* Just win, baby.  For all the sturm und drang among the Iowa fanbase about yesterday's ugly win, it's important not to lose sight of the fact that it was a win.  Nine teams ranked in the BCS top 25 lost yesterday -- Utah, Alabama, Oklahoma, Missouri, Arizona, South Carolina, Baylor, Florida State, and North Carolina State.  All but three of them (Utah, South Carolina, Florida State) lost on the road.  All but three of them (Utah, Baylor, Arizona) lost to a lower-ranked or unranked opponent.  Two other top-ten teams (Nebraska and Wisconsin) struggled on the road against lesser opposition.  All of which is to say: winning isn't always easy, no matter who you play.  The only thing that matters in this case is getting the win and keeping hopes alive for another week.  

This season is proving to be as chaotic as any season in recent memory, so just continuing to win and keep your head above water is an accomplishment that shouldn't be overlooked.  Of those teams that lost, Utah, Alabama, Missouri, Arizona, and Baylor have seen their conference title (and, in the cases of Alabama and Utah, their national title) aspirations take significant, probably fatal, blows.  For as ugly as yesterday's game was, Iowa still controls its own destiny in terms of the Big Ten title (although we need a bit of help to get to the Rose Bowl, obviously).

* Doffing the chapeau.  Briefly, a tip of the hat to Kirk Ferentz for picking up win #100 as a college coach (88 of them have come at Iowa and they've all been appreciated -- even the ugly ones) and to Derrell Johnson-Koulianos for officially moving past Kevin Kasper into first on Iowa's all-time receptions list.  Both men have had great careers at Iowa and been the source of countless good memories -- many thanks for your efforts, gentlemen.

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