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The Red Menace Wins: Wisconsin 31, Iowa 30

A day later and, yeah, that still sucked.

* Even Les Miles thinks that clock management was not so good. There's already been plenty of digital ink spilled about the clusterfuck surrounding Iowa's final timeout and spikegate (just look at the open thread or venting thread), so harping on that even more seems counterproductive. Ferentz didn't think it was a big deal and that all it cost Iowa was a few seconds -- which doesn't seem entirely true, since it also limited Iowa's playcalling and made it easier for Wisconsin to play defense at the end -- but in and of itself it didn't cost Iowa the game. In all likelihood, it cost Iowa a chance at getting a few yards closer for a field goal that was no sure thing. It was a costly mistake, but not a fatal one. The fatal mistakes happened earlier in the game. Starting with...

* The oh so "special" teams. Where to even fucking begin? Not only do Iowa's special teams continue to make awful miscues, but they flash enough moments of competence to make things even more frustrating by being miserably inconsistent. It would be easier if they simply inept all the time, but they aren't -- Meyer boomed a few kickoffs for touchbacks and absolutely drilled the 40-yard field goal that gave Iowa a 30-24 lead. Donahue had a pair of nice punts. On the other hand, they also make far too many egregious mistakes, like enabling J.J. Watt to bust through and block an extra point in the first quarter. Or suffering a bad snap that doesn't allow Iowa to even attempt a field goal later in the first half. Or incurring a costly false start penalty on a kickoff that requires a re-kick... and then giving up a huge return on said re-kick. Or, most damningly, failing to stop Wisconsin on a game-changing fake punt call late in the fourth quarter.

All of them hurt, but probably none so much as the fake punt, considering that (a) Eastern Illinois had burned Iowa on a similar play weeks ago and (b) it was such a stupidly obvious time/place for a fake punt. But Ferentz didn't expect it because, frankly, it was a play that he would have never called; he absolutely would have punted the ball and expected his defense to regain the ball... and so he never anticipated Bielema doing something different there. But it worked because it was a calculated risk taken by a team and coach that's not famous for doing so; had this happened a week ago against Rodriguez, it seems far more likely that Ferentz would have had the defense guarding against a fake (as he did twice in the first half, on a Michigan field goal attempt and right before halftime in a punting situation). But he didn't expect it from Bielema and Wisconsin because, as we've often pointed out, they're Iowa with different colors and more cheese curds; Iowa would never do something like that, so clearly Wisconsin wouldn't, either, right? Sorry -- sound the failhorn. Props where they're due -- it was a great call by Bielema.

* Unfortunately, the defense also did their part in dooming Iowa to defeat. The numbers don't look that bad in aggregate -- Wisconsin gained just 347 yards for the day, and just 142 on the ground (far below their average) -- but as anyone who watched the game can attest, Iowa had a hell of a time getting defensive stops when they needed them. Wisconsin had four drives of 10 or more plays -- they scored on all of them and three times they got touchdowns. Iowa forced only two punts all day and had just one turnover (a very nice interception by Brett Greenwood early in the fourth quarter). The defense avoided giving up any home run plays (the longest gain on the day for the Wisconsin offense was a 30-yard reception by Isaac Anderson), but they got gashed in short increments by Wisconsin -- and then couldn't force turnovers or hold them to field goals. That's a lot of bending and a lot of breaking, which is not a formula for success.

After giving up 52 points in the last five quarters of play, there's really no way to deny that the Iowa defense isn't as dominant as they've been hyped as being. They've eaten up bad teams and middling offenses, but potent offenses have given them no shortage of difficulty over the past few weeks. So why is that? There's no silver bullet explanation. Not having Norm around seems increasingly costly, especially when it comes in-game adjustments (or the lack thereof, at times). Injuries have taken a slight toll, especially in the linebacking corps, where Iowa was forced to go without two regular starters (Jeff Tarpinian and Jeremiha Hunter) for big chunks of this game. And, frankly, Iowa's suffering from a talent drop-off at certain positions. Iowa lost three very good players to the NFL draft a year ago -- Amari Spievey, Pat Angerer, and AJ Edds -- and it hasn't exactly been "next man in" with their replacements. Tyler Nielsen, James Morris, and Micah Hyde may develop into very good football players -- but they're not there yet. Hyde's taken his lumps for getting burned on a few plays this season, but for my money, the coverage in the middle of the field -- i.e., the linebackers' responsibility -- has been more damaging. Iowa's been consistently getting nickel and dimed by passes through the middle of the field, often because the linebackers seem a step out of place to break up the play.

* And we would be remiss if we didn't discuss the offense, too. For the most part the offense performed very well yesterday. Ken O'Keefe called a mostly excellent game, the offensive line turned in another hugely impressive performance (Stanzi was almost never pressured and A-Rob gained more yards than Clay and was able to bust off bigger runs), A-Rob was again awesome (132 total yards on 27 touches, 1 TD), and the passing game was mostly solid (Stanzi had good numbers -- 25/37, 258 yards, 3/0 TD/INT -- but wasn't especially crisp for much of the game and made some bad decisions on the final drive). There are a few quibbles -- it would have been nice to be a bit more aggressive on offense immediately after Greenwood's interception gave Iowa a chance to open up a two-score lead and possibly salt the game away and, as noted, the final drive was pretty awful -- but for the most part there isn't too much bitching to be done here. They put up 30 points (and put Iowa in the position for more, if not for the special teams snafus), which really ought to be enough.

No, the bigger issue concerning the offense may be the refusal to acknowledge that it, not the much-hyped defense, is the actual strength of the team. There were a handful of concerns that we had about this team coming into the season -- the offensive line, the new linebackers, the kicking game -- and a few of those have proved pretty well-founded (like the linebackers and, especially, the kicking game), but the offensive line hasn't been one of them. Outside of the meltdown against Arizona, they've done a fairly remarkable job of pass-blocking for Stanzi and they've also done a mighty fine job of opening holes for A-Rob, assuming the defense isn't absolutely loaded up to stop the run. So the offensive line has been a very pleasant surprise, Stanzi has been playing at a much higher level than a year ago, A-Rob has been a revelation, and the receivers and tight ends have been as good as we hoped they'd be.

Iowa's scored 30 or more in five of their seven games this year; in comparison, Iowa scored 30 or more just three times last year. In 2008, Iowa scored 30 or more six times, but fattened up against bad defenses and scored 20 or fewer in four games. In 2005, Iowa again scored 30 or more six times -- but they were held to 20 or less in four games (losing three). The 2004 and 2003 offenses also scored 30 or more 5-6 times each, but were also held to 20 or fewer points seven times (losing five). Iowa hasn't scored less than 24 all year. They've rarely had trouble scoring points (aside from last-minute drives against Arizona and Wisconsin, obviously, but that's a rather different kettle of fish). They've scored 30 or more five times and face two more putrid defenses (Indiana and Minnesota) and one questionable defense (Northwestern); it's not unreasonable to think that they could score 30 or more in eight games this year -- the last time they did that was 2002 (nine games of 30 or more points). (FUN FACT: 2002 was also the last time Iowa lost a game in which they scored 30 or more points.)

The 2010 offense isn't as good as the 2002 offense (that unit had personnel advantages over 2010 at every unit but wide receiver), but it's pretty damn good -- and the best offense Iowa's had in quite some time. Post-2002, the Iowa strategy has almost always been to win with stout defense and strong special teams and make do on offense; we might need to flip that script this year. The special teams are wholly unreliable, and while the defense isn't bad, it's not a rock, either. On the other hand, the offense has been remarkably reliable and potent -- maybe it's time to embrace that a bit more.

* The season is not toast -- yet. The national championship dreams are officially done (though the Arizona loss had certainly put them in critical condition anyway), and Iowa no longer controls their own destiny to make the Rose Bowl (at the very least, they need someone to knock off the Badgers in one of their final four games). The loss cost Iowa bragging rights over a border rival and a trophy and it removed whatever narrow margin of error was left, but it didn't destroy the entire season. Iowa still has games against Michigan State and Ohio State at home and if they can manage to win out, they'll assure themselves of no worse than a share of the Big Ten title (although any sort of multi-team tie doesn't exactly favor Iowa when it comes to determining a Rose Bowl participant; if you're still dreaming of Pasadena, start hoping for no worse than a two-team tie with Sparty).

The $10 million question is, of course, can this team do that? Certainly not if they keep shooting themselves in the foot with careless penalties, bad tackling, and miserable special teams errors. Can they get better? Yes, unquestionably. Will they? Look, if I knew the answer to that question, I'd be headed to Vegas now, not writing this screed. We know Ferentz has done it in the past. We know this is a talented -- and very proud -- team. We know no team in the Big Ten is invincible; Michigan State may still be unbeaten, but they've hardly looked like unstoppable juggernauts over the course of the season. We know that this year, as much as any other in recent memory, has seen chaos wreak havoc with the established order in college football. Among other things, three straight number one teams have lost, Baylor's atop the Big 12 South division, and Iowa State just beat Texas for the first time ever, in Austin. Truly, dogs and cats are shacking up together this year and logic has taken a leave of absence. So there's a pretty good chance that teams like Wisconsin and Michigan State could get tripped up again -- the question is whether Iowa can improve enough to take advantage of those slip-ups.

That said, while yesterday's loss didn't completely snuff out the hopes for a special season, it was certainly a significant blow -- and it put a ton of pressure on this week's game against Michigan State. A loss there and the ceiling for Iowa's 2010 ambitions probably drops to the Outback Bowl (at best); that's a fine result most years, but not so much this particular year. So we have Iowa coming off a painful loss in which the opposing team engineered a backbreaking drive late in the fourth quarter to win the game, getting ready to play a late October/early November home game against an undefeated top ten team with dreams of a Rose Bowl (and more), in a game which could determine whether Iowa has a good season or a middling season. Sound a little familiar? It should. Two years ago, the result was pure magic; in less than a week, we'll find out if Iowa has any magic left.

* Finally, on a more maudlin note... Yesterday's loss, coupled with the Arizona loss and the general tenor of nervous anticipation and expectation that has characterized this season has only served as a harsh reminder of how important it is to savor seasons like last year, or 2004, or 2002, or 1981, when success arrives unexpectedly and with no shortage of magic and wonder. That isn't to say that Iowa doesn't need to learn how to embrace pressure and win when expectations are high -- winning under those circumstances is just something consistently good teams do. But there's no denying that pressure is a bitch and the best things often come when you when you don't expect them. Since 2000, precisely one team has managed to lead the polls wire to wire and win a national championship -- 2004 USC. Every other champion in that timeframe has been a surprise, to varying extents. For instance, Ohio State started the 2002 season ranked 12th; we all know how that turned out. Again, Iowa still has a shot to have a satisfying, remarkable season this year; I don't want to ignore that. But unless you get hit by a bus tomorrow (and if that happens, sorry dude), chances are Iowa will enjoy another really incredible, surprising season in your lifetime -- make sure to enjoy it.