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The Breaking Point

This loss was as ironic as it was inevitable.

You may or may not remember Northwestern's 1995 season, in which they (however briefly) metamorphosized from perennial Big Ten doormat to Rose Bowl participant on the back of, among other people, Nagurski and Bednarik Award-winning linebacker Pat Fitzgerald.  You might also remember that Northwestern team, undefeated in conference play after surrendering no more than 20 points to any Big Ten opponent, folded like a house of cards against Southern Cal on New Years' Day, losing 41-32.  There was one key element missing from the Northwestern defense on that fateful day: Fitzgerald, who broke his leg against Iowa on November 11 and missed the rest of the season.  Northwestern would again take a share of the Big Ten crown in 1996, Fitzgerald's senior campaign, but was relegated to the Citrus Bowl.  Fourteen years ago, Fitzgerald's Rose Bowl dream was effectively dashed with a leg injury.  In the second week of November.  Against Iowa.

It might have been 10-0 when Stanzi faked the handoff and rolled right in his own end zone, but the game was as good as Northwestern's -- and the conference title as good as Ohio State's -- three seconds later.  The oft-cited Ferentz mantra of "Next Man In" has served the Iowa offense capably throughout the year, but Rick Stanzi was the immovable block in the Hawkeye offense's Jenga tower (I wish I could take credit for that metaphor, kudos to Doc Saturday).  By the time Stanzi went down Saturday, Iowa was playing their fourth starting halfback since August 1, their second starting tight end, their fifth incarnation of an offensive line.  One receiver missed a significant chunk of the season with nagging injuries, and another is now on the shelf.  Adam Robinson, frontrunner for Big Ten Newcomer of the Year just two weeks ago, was in street clothes.  Tony Moeaki, arguably the best tight end of the Ferentz era when healthy, had long since disappeared in fact if not in theory.  Dace Richardson, declared a mid-season first team all-American at guard by Phil Steele, was injured and had been replaced by Julian Vandervelde, who has been a shell of his former self since -- wait for it -- missing all of August camp and the majority of the first three weeks due to injury.  Bulaga was improving from his own illness but not yet his former dominant self.  Calloway was positively innocuous.  And, yet, the offense continued to do what little was required of it because Rick Stanzi, for all his flaws and screwups and inexplicable decisions, was at the helm, always there with the play this team needed.  There were answers -- inferior answers, to be sure, but answers nonetheless -- for the earlier personnel losses.  This time, there wasn't one, and the offense, and Iowa, and we, suffered the consequence.

For all the talk of this staff's ability to adjust on the fly to conditions on the field, there is a significant difference between minute adjustments to blocking assignments or pass routes and changing the entire playbook; to illustrate that difference, just remember the discussion of the MSU-game-winning slant pattern from Stanzi to McNutt, where Ferentz admitted he and O'Keefe "went to the briefcase" for a play they hadn't run in a couple of weeks.  The telling part of that exchange: Not that the slant/shoot pattern wasn't in that week's playbook, but that so much was made of going off the script.  So rare was it that KOK called a play not in his script (which I get the feeling mimics the Bill Walsh method of play scripting) that it became a serious plot point in the wake of Iowa's most improbable victory to date.

In other words, this loss is not on O'Keefe.  In a game where the coaches get 20 hours a week to install an offense and improve execution, a massive playbook simply doesn't make sense.  The gameplan KOK brought to Kinnick Saturday was ready-made for Rick Stanzi, and it was effective for 15 minutes as Iowa jumped to an early lead.  It was far from ready for James Vandenberg, though, heavy with deep passes he had neither the experience nor the touch to complete.*  There was no time to implement an entire new offense, as some have suggested should have been done, and so Vandenberg and the passing game were essentially fed to the wolves.  Open receivers were missed when bombs were released in laser-like form.  Without that deep threat, the running game -- predicated all season on the deep threat, and also headed by a freshman -- ground to a halt, and the offense died a thousand small deaths at the hands of a thoroughly mediocre Northwestern defense.  The results were obvious the moment Stanzi went down.  Barring a serious miracle in Columbus next week as the Hawkeyes field an all-freshmen backfield and that less-than-vaunted fifth derivation of the line, the dream is as dead as Pat Fitzgerald's fourteen years ago.

* -- Where I think we can lay some blame on the coaches is in Vandenberg's preparedness.  Since August, the staff has refused to name a backup, and instead listed Vandenberg and John Wienke as co-second team quarterbacks.  That almost surely limited Vandenberg's practice time even more than the typical backup, as a portion of his usual practice snaps had to be doled over to Wienke.  The cynic would say Vandenberg clearly won the backup position in the spring, but the co-backups were named to keep Wienke on the reservation, as the McNutt receiver transformation left Iowa with only three scholarship quarterbacks.  The cynic would be correct.