Déjà Vu All Over Again

Matthew Holst

Iowa beat Northwestern in overtime Saturday, and it feels like we've seen all of this before.

Iowa entered the 2002 season unranked, and an early loss to Iowa State pushed the Hawkeyes off the national radar until October. The Hawkeyes blew a halftime lead in that loss to Iowa State, then nearly imploded against Penn State two weeks later, only to pull it together in overtime. In large part because of that ISU loss, Iowa faced Purdue in their second Big Ten game of the season in relative anonymity; the Hawkeyes had squeaked into the AP poll at No. 24 that week, and remained outside the USA Today Top 25.

As we have written about here before, the 2002 Iowa-Purdue game is a lost classic, a minor clash between two heretofore insignificant Big Ten teams that turned out to be the best game many of us have ever seen. With Iowa down 4 and facing 4th and Goal at the Purdue 7, Joe Tiller dialed up an all-out cover zero safety blitz. Iowa responded by flooding the left side of the field, rolling Brad Banks toward the flood, then slipping Dallas Clark into the open space left by the receivers. Banks floated a pass toward the sideline just as the blitz got to him, Clark settled under it, and after another heart-stopping Purdue drive was finally put down, Iowa won.

Banks_clark_medium

It was impossible to know then how important that play would become for the 2002 season, or how iconic it would be for years to come. All we knew was that we'd beaten a 3-2 Purdue team that methodically beaten the Iowa defense with a running quarterback, and that the Iowa State loss was looking better with every week.

Eleven years later, Iowa lined up on 3rd and 7 at the Northwestern 8 yard line, going to the same end zone where Banks connected with Clark. Northwestern brought an all-out safety blitz, leaving man coverage on the outside. Iowa flooded the right, then slipped tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz into the flat. With a charging defender in his face, Jake Rudock floated a pass to the flat, the Polish Hat chased it down, and Iowa took the lead.

Rudock_fiedorowicz2

Iowa's defense finally got interior pressure on Kain Colter and maintained containment on the ends, effectively shutting down the Northwestern offense for the first time since late in the third quarter, and Iowa won 17-10.

As impressive as it was, the defensive stand will likely be lost to the Rudock throw. Damon Bullock whiffed completely on recognizing the blitz, and both the safety and linebacker came clean through the offensive line. From 15 rows up, it looked like a justified throwaway by Rudock -- just get rid of it and kick the field goal -- when, as if from nowhere, Fiedorowicz ran into the picture. Traveon Henry turned out, protecting the middle of the field and releasing Fiedorowicz on the out route. He then took a step inside, just as Rudock was releasing the ball. CJF came wide open.

All of that is for naught, of course, if Rudock cannot make that pass, and Good God What a Pass. He had two defenders in his face, the two outside receivers covered, and Fiedorowicz not even to his break yet. If that pass is thrown wrong -- and, from his back foot, that's a distinct possibility -- or if his split-second read of Henry is wrong, the pass is incomplete at best and another game-losing interception at worst. For those who worry about Rudock the game manager, realize that he just made the gutsiest throw by an Iowa quarterback in at least three years. For those who worry about his late-game problems, realize that he made the right call with no room for error. For everyone who has called for Beathard or Sokol sight unseen, it's time you shut up and embrace Jake Rudock for what he is: A damn fine quarterback.

There is another parallel in play here. Iowa's initial loss of the season, an embarassing defeat against Northern Illinois brought on when Rudock threw a horrible interception with less than two minutes to play and set up the Huskies for a game-winning field goal, is starting to look respectable. The same goes for the Hawkeyes' loss to Michigan State three weeks ago and their respectable performance against Ohio State last week. Iowa might not be the best three-loss team in college football, but it has the best three losses by opponent winning percentage:

Opponent winning percentage, losses only (3-loss BCS conference teams)
TEAM PCT
Iowa .962
Rutgers .913
Florida .875
Ole Miss .875
Washington .870
Mississippi State .833
Georgia Tech .826
Penn State .792
Maryland .782
Pittsburgh .772
Georgia .750
USC .652

Iowa teams, particularly teams as young as this one, need to learn to win. The 2002 team needed the loss to Iowa State, the near-meltdown against Penn State, and the Purdue comeback to figure it out. Once they had it, they were unstoppable, curbstomping opponents on their way to a perfect Big Ten record. The 2008 Hawkeyes, which parallel this team in so many ways, were 5-4 on November 1 with the four losses by a combined 12 points. The next week, they beat No. 3 Penn State with an improbable late field goal drive. They didn't lose again for more than a calendar year.

This present team has two years worth of heartbreaking losses. These Hawkeyes survived last season's debacle, and they stayed, and they improved. They have taken their lumps, but they now have a defensive line capable of recording six sacks, a trio of linebackers capable of shutting down any ground attack thrown at them, a bunch of interesting weapons at running back and receiver to use interchangably, and a quarterback capable of making That Throw. Saturday's win against a longtime nemesis that has ruined Iowa seasons in the past, played before a raucous crowd in the game like it hasn't been in years, was the end of Act 3, Scene 1 of the Kirk Ferentz epic. Someone's getting knocked off in November, and when they do, watch out.

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