Nebraska 20, Iowa 7: Monkey Gone To Heaven

sigh. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)

Honestly, it's hard to recap this game because so much of it was the same crap we've seen time and time again.  And, frankly, it's frustrating.  It's frustrating to see Iowa go out and lay an egg on national TV against a hated new rival in a game where a win would have meant a lot.  A win over Nebraska wouldn't have redeemed the season or made it one for the ages by any means... but it would have felt damn good.

Oh offense, where art thou?  Of the many frustrations and annoyances with this game, the incredible disappearing act pulled by the Iowa offense might be the most aggravating of all.  For the second time this year, they were held under 10 points (the last time that happened?  2007) and those seven points came in garbage time in the fourth quarter, long after the game had been put to bed.  Don't get me wrong: I'm glad they scored and avoided being shutout for the first time since 2000 -- especially since we never would have heard the end of it from Nebraska fans if we had been shutout -- but it was still a maddening performance.  They ran 24 fewer plays than Nebraska and had the ball for just 22:13.  Only two drives lasted longer than six plays (and obviously that wasn't because the offense was scoring so quickly).  They were, in a word, dreadful.

Road woes are not exactly a new phenomenon for the Iowa offense, either.  They scored 31 points against Purdue last week, their high water mark in a road game this year (not counting the 41 scored in 3OT against Iowa State).  They scored 31 points combined in their three road losses to Penn State, Minnesota, and Nebraska.  In all three cases, Iowa scored 10 or more points less than those teams gave up on average against conference opponents.  Penn State averaged 17.3 ppg conceded against B1G foes; Iowa scored 3 points.  Minnesota averaged 34.1 ppg conceded against B1G foes; Iowa scored 21 points.  Nebraska averaged 23.3 ppg conceded against B1G foes; Iowa scored 7 points.  Granted, aside from Minnesota (a game which differed from the others in that the Iowa offense was able to move the ball with relative impunity -- they just kept screwing up in the red zone), both Penn State and Nebraska put the clamps down on non-Iowa teams.  PSU had the stingiest scoring defense in the league and held everyone but Northwestern and Wisconsin under 20 points.  Nebraska's defense was more up and down, but the famed Blackshirts did show up and smother Michigan State earlier in the season.

And yet.  The pieces of this Iowa offense were frequently great.  James Vandenberg had, statistically, one of the finest seasons ever for an Iowa quarterback.  Marcus Coker had, statistically, one of the finest seasons ever for an Iowa running back (and he only seemed to get better and more productive in Big Ten play).  Marvin McNutt had the finest season ever for an Iowa wide receiver -- and he had a pair of pretty good sidekicks in Keenan Davis and Kevonte Martin-Manley.  Hell, by the end of the season Iowa had even remembered that the tight end existed, at least when C.J. Fiedorowicz was on the field.  So why did the sum of those often excellent parts so often add up to a less-than-stellar whole on multiple occasions?  I wish I knew but that inconsistency murdered Iowa's season.

Dr. James, Mr. Vandenberg.  Digging a little deeper, though, and we see that a big cause of that offensive inconsistency was the triggerman: JVB had a very schizophrenic season.  The overall stats are pretty solid: 214/360, 2806 yards, 23 TD, 6 INT.  But dig a little deeper and there are some definite concerns.

HOME: 127/207 (61%), 1798 yards, 17 TD, 3 INT, 256.9 ypg, 158.21 QB rating
ROAD: 87/153 (57%), 1008 yards, 6 TD, 3 INT, 201.8 ypg, 121.22 QB rating

WINS: 127/192 (66.1%), 1809 yards, 18 TD, 2 INT, 258.4 ypg, 174.15 QB rating
LOSSES: 87/168 (51.8%), 997 yards, 5 TD, 4 INT, 199.4 ypg, 106.70 QB rating

CONF: 133/231 (57.6%), 1711 yards, 13 TD, 5 INT, 213.9 ypg, 134.04 QB rating
NON-CONF: 81/129 (62.8%), 1095 yards, 10 TD, 1 INT, 273.8 ypg, 158.12 QB rating

RANKED (AP): 69/137 (50.4%), 784 yards, 3 TD, 4 INT, 196.0 ypg, 99.83 QB rating
UNRANKED (AP): 145/223 (65%), 2022 yards, 20 TD, 2 INT, 252.8 ypg, 168.99 QB rating

JVB struggled noticeably on the road and against good teams.  He was generally excellent at home and he was very good at beating up on lesser opponents, but he was pretty poor otherwise.  Those numbers simply must improve next year for Iowa to have a better season.  Vandenberg isn't a bad quarterback, but he is definitely a maddeningly inconsistent quarterback and one who struggles when taken outside of his comfort zone.  (In fairness, part of Vandenberg's problem has been a maddening case of the dropsies that virtually all of Iowa's receivers and tight ends have contracted and that was particularly bad on Friday.  Marvin McNutt, for one, had a truly awful day and while part of that was due to some very good defending on the part of the Nebraska corner backs, Marvin also just flat out dropped far too many passes in that game.)

Oh yeah, defense.  In some ways, the defense's performance against Nebraska wasn't that bad: they forced some early stops and did manage to hold Nebraska to 20 points total (though it helped that Nebraska didn't even seem interested in trying to score more points in the fourth quarter).  On the other hand, there were far too many times they just couldn't get off the field (as reflected in the 15-minute T.O.P. advantage that Nebraska had and the 24 extra plays that they ran), which led to them wearing down as the game went on.  They were beat to hell by the pounding rushing of Rex Burkhead (38 carries, 160 yards, 1 TD), but the most damning indictment of their performance was their inability to pressure Taylor Martinez and/or force him into mistakes.  T-Magic went 12/22 for 163 yards and 1 TD and, crucially, had zero turnovers.  An ankle injury kept Martinez largely in the pocket, which should have been a boon for Iowa's defense -- you want to make him a one-dimensional player, especially if that one dimension is passing the ball -- but they were consistently unable to force him into mistakes.  He's not a good quarterback -- his throwing motion is awful, he makes poor decisions at times, and his receivers bailed him out on a few occasions -- but he was undeniably the more effective quarterback on Friday.  Of course, the failure to force turnovers was a trend for Iowa in Big Ten play: they forced just ten turnovers in eight league games (by far their lowest total in the last five years), with eight of those turnovers coming in three games (jNW, Michigan, Purdue).

Punting is... oh, forget it.  It's almost not worth it to harp on some of the playcalling issues -- punting twice from inside the Nebraska 40, not attempting to score points before halftime, generally being as risk-averse as humanly possible -- since they're the exact same things we harp on almost every week.  On an individual level, I understood why Iowa punted in those situations -- 4th and 9 and 4th and 13 are not exactly high-percentage conversions -- and some blame obviously has to go to the offense's performance on first, second, and third down on those series, since doing better there would have led to more manageable fourth down situations (or eliminated them altogether).  But at the same time, punting at that point is still hugely annoying because more often you're only gaining 15 yards of field position.  Iowa was lucky in that Guthrie managed to pin Nebraska on the Nebraska 9, but it's still hardly worth it.  

Moreover, Iowa has firsthand knowledge of what can happen if you go for it -- and successfully convert -- in that scenario: they went for it on 4th and 7 from a similar point on the field against Michigan three weeks ago, converted it, and were ultimately rewarded with a touchdown.  There's no guarantee that would have happened here, but if they had successfully converted it they might have at least gotten in range for a field goal.  Those plays were also frustrating on a more big picture level, though, because they indicate an unwillingness to embrace an underdog attitude -- even when Iowa is a clear underdog (which they certainly were against Nebraska in Lincoln).  We've debated ad nauseum the extent to which Iowa is too risk-averse in games in which they're favored (i.e., Iowa State, Minnesota), but at least that's a (somewhat) debatable point; when you're the underdog, you absolutely need to take some risks in order to win.  Playing the favorite straight-up and head-on as an underdog is a recipe for getting beat soundly... and, lo and behold, that's precisely what happened against Nebraska.

Bring me a trophy -- ANY trophy.  It's now been almost 15 months since Iowa last won a rivalry/trophy game (not counting last week's win over Our Most Hated Rival, of course).  Since beating Iowa State in September of 2010, they've lost five straight rivalry/trophy games -- '10 Wisconsin, '10 Minnesota, '11 Iowa State, '11 Minnesota, and now '11 Nebraska.  That's the second-longest losing streak in rivalry games since Ferentz arrived here (Iowa lost seven in a row from 1999-2001).  Winning those games doesn't magically make up for not contending for Big Ten championships or BCS bowls -- but they're precisely the sort of wins that linger in the mind as fond memories. They're also the wins that matter a little more than the average win; rivalry games are rivalries for a reason, after all.  Unfortunately, Iowa hasn't had a rivalry win to crow about in a long, long time, a fact which rankles even more with each rivalry game loss.  

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