The mood surrounding the Iowa fanbase following Saturday's Chippewa fiasco is fit to 'celebrate' an anniversary of sorts on Saturday. It hasn't exactly been a whole year, but Iowa played Minnesota when the date's last four digits were '2011,' and they will again in five days when the date ends with '2012.'
Last year's Iowa-Minnesota tilt shares a handful of characteristics with Iowa's MAC-tastic defeat of two days ago: dominant Iowa O-Line play, a 200-yard rusher in Black & Gold, baffling non-recovery of a not-exceptionally-placed onside kick, and a one-point defeat that surely evoked a good number of chuckles from the four corners of hell (Madison, Lincoln, Ames, and ... Champaign [?]). This post aims to specifically address the first two of these characteristics, both of which themselves share an attribute: they aren't often accomplished by a losing team, at least not outside of the Big XII, where (as ISU fan tells us) men are men, and (as we suspect) those men don't really play too much defense.
Below, I hope to briefly survey exactly how Iowa lost to the Golden Gophers in 2011, and make a (hopefully) slightly unconventional argument as to how they more likely could have won. There were red zone failures, sure, but nonetheless, Iowa converted its only redzone chance in the fourth quarter to go up 21-10, and only failed to convert one third down in the second half. Sounds good, right? Well, it wasn't. The defeat defied logic. The remedy, however, may equally defy logic. Leading 21-16 with its defense back on the field after Minnesota's onside kick, Iowa needed to increase the Gophers' odds of scoring that go-ahead touchdown.
All drive information contained herein is courtesy of the NCAA, available via customizable navigation at http://web1.ncaa.org/mfb/mainpage.jsp?year=2011
To think happy thoughts for a moment, allow me to set this stage: East Lansing, Michigan on October 24, 2009. Any Hawk fan that's been on the grid (read: everyone reading this) knows what happened. 7 got 6. Epic. Delirium. 8-0. However, what happened before that, a swift and crushing 60-yard TD drive by Sparty, seemed to end all of our hopes and dreams. MSU's drive may have done that very thing, except it had one normally desirable, but situationally-unfortunate (for MSU) attibute; the Spartans struck--hook & lateral included--in only 1:13. If Cousins doesn't hit Blair White for a 30-yard TD strike immediately after the hook-and-lateral, MSU may have been running a last-second slant route for a 12-9 win.
Jumping back to non-alternate reality, Minnesota's go-ahead TD drive constituted 12 plays, covering 59 yards, but most importantly, it consumed 5:34, running the clock from 8:22 after the onside kick to 2:48 when Iowa set up for its ensuing clusterfuck (including its aforementioned only missed 3rd down of the second half) trailing 22-21. This actually left Iowa more time than it had in the '09 MSU game, and also needing only a field goal to win, but on top of the '11 Iowa squad being considerably less clutch (and more bed-shitty?) than the '09 Hawks, the situation is also distinct in that the '09 MSU drive was preceded by an Iowa score (FG) at the 2:56 mark. In the 2011 Minnesota tussle, however Iowa did not touch the ball between the 13:51 mark in the 4th until the start of its (very non-Elway-esque) 'drive' beginning at 2:48.
To be emphatically redundant, Iowa didn't touch the ball for eleven straight minutes while Minnesota turned its 11-point deficit into a 1-point lead. You think Coker's 252 yards were impressive? Coker accumulated 249 of his yards in the first three quarters. In essence, Iowa's offense, regardless how sputtering in the red zone, played a three-quarter game. You want to magnify red zone failures? Limit your number of possessions by a quarter.
This brings me to the main point. Like with the '12 CMU loss, Iowa's failure to snag the opponent's onside kick was (rightly) a central culprit of criticism after the '11 Minnesota game. However, subsequent to the Minnesota onside kick, Iowa had 8.5 minutes worth of opportunity to recover from not recovering the kick. In hindsight, it's easy to see that Iowa surrendered a TD to the Gophers with time enough left for only one horrid attempt at a surprisingly necessary comeback. However, applying a prospective risk-benefit analysis (with the Gophers in likely four-down mode and coming off an 11-play, 80-yard drive that consumed 5:29) from the start of the drive may suggest 'bringing the house' at least once or twice on the drive, just to get the offense back on the field with six or so minutes to go, for better or for worse.
I don't have anything resembling a reasoned estimate of the respective odds of TDs and stops in 4-3 Cover 2 versus with a Cover 0 Double-A-Gap Blitz (or with Gray, more likely some OLB fire). Yet, therein lies the Ferentz frustration. It doesn't take advanced X's and O's knowledge to know that sometime you have to take a chance and make something happen. What Iowa needed from Minnesota (if they were to score a TD) was a quick strike. What Iowa needed otherwise, regardless of time, was to get its offense back on the field, an offense that had averaged nearly seven yards per snap on the day and had completed a 7-play 71-yard scoring drive of its own leading to that fateful 13:51 mark. To weigh the outcomes more directly: If Minnesota failed to score, what was the marginal benefit of getting the ball back with 2:50 to go versus ~6:00 to go? I'll admit there is some benefit there, but if Minnesota scored, what was the marginal benefit of getting the ball back with ~6:00 to go versus 2:50? Iowa's scrimmage advantage throughout the game (437 yards to 301 at the start of that drive) militated in favor of 'lengthening the game' to allow more snaps over which that advantage would play out. Instead, of the remaining 21 snaps, Minnesota took 17 of them.
To conclude, the 2011 Minnesota loss was not quite the 'only way Iowa can fuck this up now...' debacle that embodied the last two minutes of Chippe-gate. But, it fit within a similarly small universe of ways in which a team controlling the line of scrimmage and featuring a 200+ yard rusher could lose (outside of surrendering a 50-spot to an Oregon or Oklahoma State or the like) a football game. Against CMU, bend-but-don't break nonetheless seemed the correct play with 2:00 left, but much like Iowa's fear of the big play led it to allow the Gophers to burrow away the entire fourth quarter of the game last year, it also led Iowa to turn its 28 minutes worth of second-half defensive clampdown on Saturday into suddenly sizable cushions for the CMU receivers. Without all the percentages to weigh, and understanding that the MSU, CMU, and Minnesota games all discussed can be viewed as distinct situations, I will simply end with a question: of the three games, in which was Iowa's offense and rushing attack the worst, and in which did Iowa's normally-well-'cushioned' secondary give up a late deep touchdown (the cardinal sin of Ferentz-ball)? (short answer: The game that fits that description is the game Iowa won.)