This post is sponsored by EA Sports NCAA Football 2011.
Asking us to pick a favorite Iowa Hawkeyes team is an exercise in agony. Sort of like Sophie's Choice, except they're not our actual children nor does anybody have to die. So I guess it's not like Sophie's Choice at all.
At any rate, we could go in any number of directions. We could have chosen teams from before we were born/before our long-term cognition was operational (easy joke goes here), and there are plenty of candidates: Nile Kinnick's Ironmen of 1939, the 1956 and 1958 Rose Bowl teams, Hayden's breakout '81 squad, the legendary '85 team, etc. etc. But we don't have any actual personal recollection of those teams; crowning them as favorites speaks more to the powers of imagination, filling in copious amounts of details where only (relatively) scant historical media exist. If you really wanted to read us celebrating our lack of perspective, we could just talk crap about countries we've never been to and call it a day.
We could also pull something completely sacrilegious and nominate the 2023 national champion Iowa Hawkeyes, led by coach Biff Boswell. But not even EA wants us to pretend our video game teams are real life--and HS might shoot me--so that's not about to happen.
So we're the games, players, and teams we've witnessed first-hand, the ones permanently etched into our memory. And while there are plenty of worthy candidates for praise in the last 20 years, the vast majority also--in their own ways--left sour tastes in our mouths. The 1990 Rose Bowl team got clobbered by a very good Washington team. 1991's culmination in a Holiday Bowl tie was meh. 2001 ended on a high note, but considering the amount of talent on that roster and how 2002 went, 7-5 almost seems underwhelming in retrospect. 2002 was dizzying at its heights, but the second-half collapses of the two losses were both brutal to watch. 2008 saw Iowa lose at least two games too many while Ricky Stanzi worked his way into starting caliber, and 2009's losses with Stanzi on the sideline left us wondering what could have been.
But 2004 was different.
Sure, 2004 was one of Iowa's most highly decorated seasons, meaning it belongs in the discussion with the 11 teams mentioned above. But in this season more than any other successful season, the ends belay the means; for as many hardships befell the 2004 squad:
- untested quarterback
- loss of OL anchor Robert Gallery to graduation
- a week 3 pounding at ASU
- a second straight loss, this one at Michigan
- two coaches losing family members
- of course, the Angry Iowa-Running-Back-ACL-Hating God
...the trials only hardened their resolve. The Hawkeyes ripped off seven straight victories to finish the Big Ten season--including the legendary 6-4 win over PSU and a 33-7 thrashing of OSU--the first time since 1948 where Iowa's biggest victory in conference play has come against the Buckeyes. The Hawkeyes also put together 2-point victories against middling Purdue and Minnesota, because like 2009, there wasn't much easy about the way Iowa did things.
But for all the close victories Iowa had down the stretch, they were never forced to scramble back from a late deficit or were otherwise in dire straits; during those three 2-point wins, Iowa held exactly one deficit: 2-0 in the first quarter against Penn State. Sure, Minnesota had a long kick to win it, but Rhys Lloyd may as well have aimed his kick at Glen Mason.
That comeback would come during the Capital One Bowl, where Iowa gave up two late touchdown drives to Purple Drank Grimace before a miraculous(ly blown coverage led to a) game-winning pass from Drew Tate to Warren Holloway--Holloway's first and only college touchdown. Here's the New Year's Heave once more, for good measure.
It would be both trite and incorrect to paint that play as a microcosm of Iowa's season as a whole; as mentioned before, Iowa didn't spend the season pulling comeback wins from behind their gold pants, they merely outplayed their opponents (Michigan and ASU aside, of course) for 60 minutes, even if they had to run on fumes at the end to do it. The Holloway pass isn't the 2004 Iowa team writ large; it's merely a crowning achievement for a team that did just about everything else along the way, adversity be damned. And that's why, even in spite of the ensuing three seasons, the 2004 Iowa Hawkeyes are our favorite of all time.