So this is it. Later tonight, Iowa kicks off against Oklahoma in the Insight Bowl. Three-plus hours later, that game will be complete, and the 2011 football season will be over. In the desert, against a top 25 opponent from the Big XII, without their starting halfback. 2011 is the new 2010.
The Bob Stoops angle is the common storyline heading into tonight's game. If you've been living under a rock for the last 15 years, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops is a former Iowa safety and assistant coach. He showed up at last year's Iowa-Missouri bowl game in a Hawkeyes sweatshirt. He (and his family) have an affinity for the program and the school, but that means nothing to how Oklahoma will prepare for, or play, tonight.
If there's a letup in Oklahoma's intensity tonight, it has nothing to do with Stoops and Iowa; it likely has more to do with the fact that they were the #1 team in the country for the first half of the season and are now playing on December 30 in Sun Devil Stadium. We know the feeling. Iowa's returning to the same bowl game for the second year in a row, at the end of another five-loss season capped with a half-hearted lackluster performance on the road. In fact, we've been struck by how little hype there has been for this game. Maybe it shouldn't be that surprising: it was another 7-5 season, this is another trip to the Insight Bowl (meaning Kirk Ferentz now has the distinction of being the second coach to captain his team to back-to-back Insight Bowls; the other was Tim Brewster, which is not good company to be keeping), and while it's OKLAHOMA it's more like oklahoma with the Sooners' litany of injuries and late season losses. On the other hand, this is still a chance to knock off a college football blueblood and partially redeem this sadsack season -- and a chance for Iowa's senior class to finish 4-0 in bowl games, a feat never previously accomplished by any Iowa class.
So how the hell can they do it? Any hope of approaching this game with a traditional offensive gameplan should have gone out the window when Marcus Coker followed Mika'il McCall into suspensionhood. With Coker -- and possibly even with McCall -- the idea of employing a conservative, ball control gameplan was at least theoretically viable. Coker had been an incredibly productive horse for Iowa's offense all season (1384 yards, 15 TD) and Oklahoma had shown some vulnerability to the run. Pound away with Coker and try to hit McNutt and Davis over the top with play-action? Sure, why not. It might not have worked, but it was reasonable to think that it could work. With no Coker and the only options to replace him a motley crew of undersized true freshmen (Jordan Canzeri and Damon Bullock), an injury-riddled redshirt freshman (De'Andre Johnson), a former walk-on (Jason White), and a fullback (Brad Rodgers)? Expecting that gameplan to work now is straight up fool's gold.
The Iowa defense has improved since some of the early season tire fires (the Michigan State debacle notwithstanding, although they were also gifted some horrendous field position in that game, courtesy of gaffes from the offense or special teams) and they'll no doubt be motivated to send beloved defensive coordinator Norm Parker out on a high note... but talent is talent, and the Iowa defense is still weak in that department this year. Chad Greenway isn't walking through that door. Bob Sanders isn't walking through that door. Matt Roth isn't walking through that door. And god bless James Morris, Jordan Bernstine, and Broderick Binns, but they're no Greenway, Sanders, or Roth. If Iowa expects to rely on the defense and win a 17-14 squeaker, they're likely going to wind up badly disappointed -- and torched on the scoreboard. Even without all-conference talents like Ryan Broyles and Dom Whaley, the Oklahoma offense likely has enough firepower to put up plenty of points in this game.
Which means the onus is -- again -- on the Iowa offense to score a lot of points. We've been here before, of course. We've known since Labor Day that the Iowa offense was going to have to carry the load this year, and while they had several good performances, they also had two games where they scored 7 points or fewer, the first time that had happened since the bad old days of the 2007 offense. But still: Iowa has a (generally) good quarterback (Vandenberg), an excellent wide receiver (McNutt), two quality sidekick receivers (Davis and Martin-Manley), and a potentially good tight end (Fiedorowicz). Even without Coker, there are enough pieces in place for this offense, in a one-off situation like tonight's Insight Bowl, to flourish. So damn the torpedoes and consign the usual offensive gameplan to the trash; this is the time and place for Iowa to open up the offense and let 'er rip. It's Norm's Last Stand, it's Marvin's last chance to do his thing in front of the Iowa faithful, and if we lose big, well, that's what damn near everyone expected to happen anyway. Win or lose, let's see Iowa go out guns blazing.