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How Do We View The 2009 Hawkeyes... And What Does It Mean for 2010?

It's impossible to formulate hopes and expectations for the 2010 Iowa Hawkeyes without thinking about the 2009 Iowa football team.  There are just too many similarities -- eight starters back on defense, seven starters back on offense, a schedule that features 10 of the 12 teams they faced a year ago -- to look at it any other way.  But... even now, months later, what do we make of the 2009 team?  They went 11-2, won the Orange Bowl, and were tantalizingly close to winning the Big Ten... but still: how good were they?  A few weeks ago we debated who would win in a game between the 2008 Iowa team (which went 9-4) and the 2009 team (11-2, as noted); the debate was virtually deadlocked.  Some argued that the 2009 squad's superior record was prima facie evidence of their superiority; others noted the 2008's narrow defeats and match-up superiority at key positions (running back, offensive line) in their support for that squad. 

Was the 2008 team unlucky to only go 9-4 and lose four games by a combined 12 points?  Conversely, was the 2009 team lucky to go 11-2 and win four games by a combined 8 points?  The 2008 team went 2-4 in games decided by a touchdown or less; the 2009 team went 4-2 in the same games.  There's a perception (perhaps deserved, perhaps not) that the 2008 squad underachieved, while the 2009 squad overachieved.

Yet while there's some definite truth to that... is it also possible that the 2009 Iowa team actually underachieved?  Perhaps not in a records sense; their two losses came when a back-up quarterback was pressed into duty, first unexpectedly (against jNW) and then in the most hostile environment in the Big Ten (the Horseshoe).  Few would have expected Iowa wins under those circumstances, so in that sense the results were as expected.  On the other hand, from a less results-oriented perspective, it's hard not to look at the 2009 team and see that they were a team that managed to go 11-2 without playing well much of the time.  Iowa fans shouldn't need much reminder of how narrow the gap between victory and defeat was for the Iowa a year ago, but just in case:

Week 1: IOWA 17, UNI 16; Everyone remembers the two blocked field goals, but it only came down to that improbable sequence because of Iowa's poor play earlier in the game,  Midway through the third quarter, Iowa was still stuck on 3 points and trailed 13-3.  The offense briefly awoke from its slumber to score a pair of touchdowns in a ten-minute span to give Iowa the lead (and, ultimately, the win) but the game itself was still a vicious struggle.  Against a I-AA team who wound up not even making the I-AA playoffs. Gulp.

Week 2: IOWA 35, ISU 3; We remember this one as the biggest blowout of the season (it was) and the easiest win of the season (it probably was), but even this game wasn't without its struggles.  Iowa led just 14-3 at halftime and needed late second-quarter touchdown to push its lead that far.  If not for Arnaud's stubborn insistence on giving the ball away to the Iowa defense possession after possession, this could have turned into one another one of those gut-wrenchingly close games that marked the '09 Iowa season (and the Iowa-Iowa State series throughout the '00s).

Week 3: IOWA 27, ARIZONA 17; Another game where Iowa trailed in the second quarter (10-7) and while the Arizona offense rarely got on track (Zona's only touchdowns in the game came off a STANZIBALL and a second-string defense late in the game), the Iowa offense's inability to put together a consistent performance kept things close until the fourth quarter.

Week 4: IOWA 21, PENN STATE 10; Given the way the Iowa defense utterly manhandled the Penn State offense for the better part of three quarters in this game, it's tough to envision this game as a struggle... but it was.  The defense largely buckled down after the opening touchdown bomb, but once again the offense struggled to put much of anything together until late.  While the momentum had begun turning in Iowa's favor as early as the safety in the second quarter, it wasn't until Clayborn's spectacular special teams play that Iowa managed to score a touchdown - and take a lead it would never relinquish.

Week 5: IOWA 24, ARKANSAS STATE 21; For once the offense turned up ready to go from the opening snap: they jumped out to a 14-0 lead and it looked like a comfortable rout was coming.  Unfortunately, the offense apparently decided to go home after that, aside from one more deep touchdown bomb to McNutt in the third quarter.  Worse, Stanzi's inability to protect the ball either gave Arkansas State actual points (hello, STANZIBALL) or good field position and what should have been a laugher turned into a uncomfortably close game over a middling Sun Belt squad.

Week 6: IOWA 30, MICHIGAN 28; A week later, Stanzi decided to get his STANZIBALL out of the way early (his lone turnover all game) and the offense was largely effective throughout the game (30 points was the second-highest figure of the season for them), but for once the defense was the culprit in keeping a game close.  Their inability to stuff the Michigan running game kept Big Blue in the game and even gave them a late shot to win the game.

Week 7: IOWA 20, WISCONSIN 10; The defense was once again victimized by a powerful running game (at least until Clay got folded up like a deck chair), while the offense slept walk through the early going, only waking up in the second half with a handful of perfectly thrown balls from Ricky Stanzi and some solid running from A-Rob.

Week 8: IOWA 15, MICHIGAN STATE 13; The Iowa defense played great for approximately 55 minutes in the hardest-hitting game Iowa played all year; unfortunately a brief lapse almost cost them the game because for as impressive as the defense was (and their goalline stand earlier in the game was a forgotten gem), the offense was every bit as putrid for approximately 58 minutes... until Ricky Stanzi ate his spinach and Marvin McNutt saved the day.

Week 9: IOWA 42, IOWA 42, INDIANA 24; Ricky's generosity hit new heights (5 interceptions!) and the defense struggled to slow the Indiana offense... and then the teams changed ends and the game was flipped completely on its head.  Wind completely fucked with this game, but it's pretty safe to say that even if your quarterback leads the team to a season-high in points (42), he probably didn't play all that well if he threw five interceptions.

Week 10: just NORTHWESTERN 17, IOWA 10; Best known for the WOOTENOCALYPSE that cost Iowa its quarterback (and America its greatest patriot), this was yet another game in which the offense looked utterly hopeless aside from the early bomb from Stanzi to McNutt.  While the defense gave up just 10 points (the other seven coming from a Stanzi fumble in the end zone on the aforementioned injury play) and 239 total yards of offense, those stats are a little misleading.  Northwestern thrashed Iowa in time of possession (34:20 to 25:40) and for once that stat was relevant since it limited the one thing the Iowa offense needed the most: opportunities. 

Week 11: OHIO STATE 27, IOWA 24 (OT); In many ways, an utterly head-scratching game from an Iowa perspective that indicates just how impossible it is to say how good the 2009 Iowa team was.  It was a three-point road loss to the eventual Big Ten champion in a brutally difficult environment... that's good.  But Iowa arguably had better chances to score (and win the game) in regulation than Ohio State, but failed due to dropped passes, missed field goals, or conservative playcalling... that's bad.  Redshirt freshman James Vandenberg made his first career start in the Horseshoe and went 20/33 for 233 yards and two touchdowns (both in the second half).... that's good.  But he also threw three interceptions and could have thrown a handful more if OSU defenders had held onto them... that's bad.  The Iowa defense limited Terrelle Pryor to just 93 yards passing and 29 yards rushing... that's good.  But they also gave up 200 yards to Brandon Saine and Dan Herron and failed to force a turnover... that's bad.

(edited to add...)

Week 12: IOWA 12, MINNESOTA 0; The defense pitched another shutout against the Gophers (eight quarters and counting woo), but the offense was never worse than it was in this game.  Whatever possessed Vandenberg in the Ohio State game (the spirit of one of the Chucks?) departed in this game and were left with a brutally unpleasant slog and one gigantic question mark: was Vandenberg the nervous, jittery QB who could barely complete a pass that played jNW and Minnesota or was he the ice-cold QB who enabled Iowa to tie the game up against Ohio State?  We still don't know.

BOWL: IOWA 24, GEORGIA  TECH 14; As dominant a 10-point win as you're likely to find, but yet another STANZIBALL and some general offensive sluggishness in the second and third quarters kept Iowa from truly pulling away and locking up a victory until Wegher burst free in the fourth quarter.

So what do we make of that team?  Well, from an optimist's perspective, when they were good, they were very good... and when they were bad, they weren't really all that bad -- they never got blown out or dismantled.  But from a pessimist's perspective, they needed wild, game-turning plays like Clayborn's blocked punt or Sash's pinball interception return or "7 got 6."  Another perspective would argue that plays like that happen when good talent meets hard work, but there's an undeniable element of randomness in plays like that, too -- and chance was quite often on Iowa's side last year.  The ball bounced just right off the Happy Valley turf to enable Clayborn to pick it up in stride and sprint into the endzone; the ball deflected just right off various players to land in Sash's hands; etc.

But what does the 2009 performance tell us about the 2010 Iowa team?  Perhaps a lot... or perhaps nothing.  It depends on how you perceive the 2009 team.  Were they ultimately a 8-4ish team that simply got hot at the right times or caught enough lucky breaks to get to 11-2?  Or were they actually a very good, 11-12 win team that simply made things harder than it needed to for itself?  If you believe the former, then you probably think the 2010 outfit will need to play a lot better than they did in 2009 just to match the results of that team.  But if you believe the latter, then perhaps the sky is the limit for this team... and those dreams of Pasadena or Glendale don't seem that far-fetched.

From a purely statistical standpoint, Iowa in 2009 probably hewed closer to belonging in the first category than they did the second: a team that finishes 99th in the country in rushing yards per game (114.2 ypg) and 86th in points scored (23.2 ppg) and winds up with an 11-2 record is probably punching a bit above its weight, even if it had a sparkling mark in the most important defensive category (points allowed; they finished 8th and gave up just 15.4 ppg).  In that sense, for Iowa to equal or improve on its 11-2 record the offense probably needs to carry its own weight this year; the defense should again be quite stout, but a good defense married to a crap offense means more impossibly close games like we saw in 2009... and those often required a crazy play or two to go Iowa's way.  So then: can the offense do better?  You'd certainly hope so when they return a QB, three RBs, five WRs, and a tight end, but there's still the matter of that offensive line brimming with new faces.  Experience at the skill positions doesn't mean a damn if the big uglies can't hold a block.

So: how good was the 2009 team?  Were they a lucky bunch of overachievers who exploited a handful of magical plays?  Or were they a hard-nosed group of underachievers who rarely played up to their full potential and made things difficult for themselves?  How good can the 2010 team be?  What say you?