Another game, another loss. Another game, another ineffectual offensive performance. I feel like we've been here before.
Farewell, Norm. The final score says that Iowa gave up 31 points to Oklahoma, but that number does a disservice to the efforts of the Iowa defense. Seven of those points came in garbage time at the end of the game and seven more came after a Vandenberg interception (and subsequent penalty) had given Oklahoma the ball inside the Iowa 10. In-between, the defense held Oklahoma to 275 yards and 21 points, forced six punts, and got a timely interception. While Oklahoma's offense was definitely more limited without the likes of Whaley, Broyles, and Reynolds, but this was still a very solid day of work for Iowa's defense and a worthy way to send out Norm Parker. (Although they had no answer for "The Belldozer.") About the only thing they didn't do (and that Iowa really needed) was make a game-changing play and/or score some points. They came achingly close to doing so -- Lebron Daniel was very close to making an interception in the first quarter and would have been able to fall into the end zone for a touchdown -- but they couldn't get that big play. Still, Iowa didn't lose this game because the defense got blown off the field (as some feared would happen); they played well enough to give Iowa a chance to win the game, but for...
The offense, the damnable offense. I've been steadfast in my criticism of the Iowa offense over the last few years and this game only offered further evidence in support of that belief. In the first half, when the game was still very much in doubt, the offense couldn't get anything going. They had one decent drive, a 14-play, 65-yard drive that ended on a failed fourth down conversion near the end zone. That fourth down play was (a) one of the biggest plays of the half and (b) a nice summation of the Iowa offense. Iowa decides to go for it on fourth down (a surprising, but welcome bit of boldness from Ferentz & Co.; perhaps they read our posts on Friday about needing to score lots of points)... but calls a slow-developing off-tackle run for Canzeri, which is unsurprisingly stuffed in the backfield. Making matters worse was the fact that Marvin McNutt was WIDE OPEN and COMPLETELY UNCOVERED thanks to some confusion from the Oklahoma defense; had Vandy seen him and checked the play to a quick throw, Marvin could have walked into the end zone. Alas, he didn't see McNutt (even though Marvin was yelling and waving his arms frantically), the play got stuffed, and Iowa never sniffed the end zone for the rest of the game. Much like Lebron Daniel's pick six that wasn't, it's hard to say how a score there might have changed the game. Either touchdown would have made the game 7-7. It's hard to know how things would have played out from that point, but surely a 7-7 tie would be infinitely preferable to a 14-0 halftime deficit or the eventual 21-7 third quarter deficit Iowa faced (perhaps Horace can chime in with Iowa's win probabilities in those scenarios, but I'm guessing they were pretty damn low).
That play summed up the Iowa offense -- and James Vandenberg's play in particular -- pretty well: disjointed. Vandenberg had a frustrating day at the office on Friday: pretty lousy in the first half, but pretty decent for long stretches of the second half. He threw some very nice passes on Iowa's two scoring drives (particularly a downfield throw to KMM). Unfortunately, by then it was too little, too late -- we needed something out of him before we were in a 21-0 hole. Several of the same problems that have dogged Vandenberg all season -- hell, back to his initial appearances in 2009 -- reared their ugly head in this game, too: an inability to handle pressure well, inconsistent accuracy, and a tendency to bail on plays too quickly. How much has Vandenberg truly improved in the span of fifteen games as a starter? There's been some improvement, but definitely not as much as we could -- and perhaps should -- have hoped for, which is worrying. The hope is that he gets better in 2012 to give Iowa a chance of improving upon a 7-5 record, but... if it hasn't happened yet, is there reason to believe it will happen by next fall?
That said, Vandenberg can't take all of the blame for the failure of the Iowa offense. As off as he was at times last night, he wasn't helped at all by a wide receiver corps that seemed hellbent on dropping every other pass that he sent their way. Keenan Davis may have led all Iowa receivers with 5 catches for 76 yards, but he had at least 3-4 bad drops and fumbled the ball (which he recovered) on one of Iowa's scoring drives. if we're going to be relying on Keenan to take over as WR1 from McNutt next year (and we are), he's going to need to become far more reliable. And it would also help if the offensive gameplan could more easily put players in a position to succeed. Calling slow-developing run plays to the outside was suicide against a defense as fast as Oklahoma's; Canzeri did most of his damage on quick run plays that attacked the middle of the defense. And this says nothing of the fact that too often it seems like too many things must go right for Iowa to make even the simplest plays or the fact that the Iowa offense remains maddeningly predictable in its use of certain formations and personnel groups. There's nothing to be done about it, but... the wrong coordinator is leaving the Iowa football staff.
The wrong kind of special. A lot of things needed to go right for Iowa to win that game -- the offense needed to be more productive (they weren't), the defense needed to be solid (they were) and maybe make some big plays (they didn't), and Iowa needed to do the little things on special teams (they didn't). As the mothership's Bill C. pointed out in his Numerical account of the game:
19.8: Oklahoma's advantage in average starting field position. Thanks to turnovers and a nice kickoff return, the Sooners' average starting field position was their 41.5. Most of their game was played in Iowa territory, even if they weren't actually getting anywhere. Iowa, meanwhile, never actually started a drive beyond their 30-yard line. Average starting field position: their 21.7.
Iowa needed short fields to help out their offense and they needed to force Oklahoma's offense to drive as far as possible to score; they failed to do either. Iowa's struggles in kickoff coverage once again became apparent, leading to pair of returns that let Oklahoma start around midfield. That's bad. Iowa also lost the punting battle against Oklahoma; forcing Oklahoma to punt six times was a win, but that success was mitigated by the fact that OU punter Tress Way had a whale of a game, averaging 50+ yards a punt and booming a 67-yarder that flipped field position (that came moments after Daniel's near-pick six; what a huge swing of momentum we could have been). Iowa did come very close to blocking a punt in the first (?) half, which was nice to see, but ultimately another example of the trend that killed Iowa in that half: so close to a big play, but never able to get one.
The belles of the ball. That said, I would be remiss if I didn't single out the efforts of a few players in Friday night's game. It was (yet another) disappointing loss, but there were still some very praise-worthy individual efforts. Marcus Coker's absence was certainly felt at running back, but true freshman Jordan Canzeri put in a very credible effort as his stand-in. 58 yards on 22 carries doesn't look that impressive (2.6 ypc is pretty pedestrian), but watching the game, I thought he looked good, especially when he wasn't stuck in those slow-developing runs to the outside. It would have been nice to see some other plays to take advantage of his speed -- some sweeps or tosses, perhaps -- but he still acquitted himself well. He was also pretty good in the passing game (6 catches for 28 yards and 1 TD), particularly on the beautifully executed screen play that led to Iowa's second touchdown. (More screens in next year's offense, please.) Canzeri's obviously not feature back material, but he can certainly be a valuable counterpart to Iowa's lead back next year (hopefully a returned Marcus Coker).
On defense, the story of the game was Mike Daniels, who ended his Iowa career with one of his finest games: 5 tackles,3 TFL, 2 sacks. He was a hugely disruptive force (particularly in the first half) and a big reason Oklahoma's running game struggled to get going. Finally healthy after a year of nagging injuries, Daniels looked like the player we'd hoped he would be as a fifth-year senior. The Iowa defensive line was weak on the whole this year, but replacing Daniels still won't be easy.
And so ends another year of Iowa football. It was a disappointing and frustrating year, with too few highlights and too many lowlights (on the field and off). Much as we love Iowa football, I don't think any of us will be too upset that it's going away for a while. We can use a break. That said, it's also not really going away: there's a defensive coordinator search to cover, plus at least one position coach (defensive line) to replace, recruiting news to cover (good news there coming in a forthcoming post), and whatever else the off-season brings. Hell, spring practice will probably be here before we know it.