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Here's the Thing: Penn State

In 1215, King John of England was in trouble.  His feudal lords were openly looking for someone else to make a claim to his throne, going so far as to contact Prince Louis of France despite the fact that England was engaged in another thirty-year war with the French.  The barons entered London with the support of the masses, and forced John to sign the statement of liberties.  This document ensured such rights as due process for freemen (life still sucked for serfs, as documented in Monty Python and the Holy Grail) and the freedom of the Church of England from the state's control.

The charter was almost immediately rescinded by King John, who claimed it an affront to his dignity and his power claimed directly from God.  That, of course, meant civil war.  King John died of dysentery during the war, vaulting his nine-year old son Henry to the throne.  When Henry reached the age of eighteen and could actually do stuff, he reaffirmed the charter, and Magna Carta was law.  It later became the basis of the rights of the subjects of the world's largest empire and, though it has largely been supplanted by later, more expansive, laws passed by the British Parliament, the rights it created have never been revoked or overturned.  Magna Carta remains the most famous list of the rights of man.

Since gaining its independence from England in 1960, Nigeria has been a mess.  Originally founded as a parliamentary democracy, Nigeria's first republic lasted for less than three years before the prime minister and governors were assassinated by the military.  Six months later, those military leaders were killed by a different set of generals, sparking a three-year civil war.  Two more military coups later, a second constitutional republic was founded.

That republic lasted for five whole years before the military again overthrew the government, placing a Supreme Military Counsel in power.  Two years later, the SMC's reign was ended in another military coup by General Ibrahim Babangida, who head faked toward human rights and pseudo-democracy.  He initially promised a return to democracy in five years.  Babangida later extended that to eight years and repeatedly cancelled and voided elections under allegations of fraud.  Presidential elections were held in 1993, but the results were again annulled by Babangida.  Eventually, the General was ousted, but the transitional republic lasted only a couple of months before the military again took control.  While democratic government was restored in 1999, there have still been repeated assassinations and fraudulent elections.  Human rights are still ignored.  Government strongmen still hold virtually all power in the country.  Every person to take control of the country since the late 70's has promised increased freedoms for Nigerian citizens, but the government always reverts to the same corrupt dictatorship.

If you were putting odds on which team in the Iowa-Penn State game would be the subject of a post about banana republics and the rights of the people in a dictatorship, PSU would be an overwhelming favorite.  There isn't another program in the country where an aging autocrat has held power for 50+ years and is so brazen in his attempts to both hold that power and effect a passing of the throne to his son.  During the podcast, Chris talked about the bizarre game being played by Nittany Lion fans during televised games, where they look for clear pictures of their head coach in the booth and speculate on his current condition.  Paterno won't let players transfer or coaches leave for other jobs, denies all criticism with a variation of  "everything is fine, nothing to see here", and protects information with an iron grip.  He's essentially a sash and a funny hat away from calling himself Generalissimo.

This isn't about Penn State, though, because this -- like all games involving Kirk Ferentz and Joe Paterno -- doesn't come down to what Penn State will do (or what they have always done, Spread HD or not).  This is about Iowa's philosophy, and the potential paradigm shift occurring within the program (especially on offense), and whether the Pitt comeback was Magna Carta or the Third Republic of Nigeria.  Iowa has shown the, for lack of a better term, "old Iowa" this year, and it wasn't pretty: Loss to Iowa State, 24-7 shellacking through most of the first three quarters at home against Pitt.  It has since shown "new Iowa": Spread formations (though not a spread offense, and don't mistake one for the other) with the quarterback in the shotgun without a huddle and three or four receivers and an increasing level of confidence in attacking the opponents' safeties on deep routes.  "New Iowa" came back in 15 minutes to beat Pitt.  "New Iowa" hung 28 points on Louisiana-Monroe before the Warhawks knew what had happened.  "New Iowa" looks promising.

Kirk Ferentz has met that modest success with a disconcerting sense of skepticism and sarcasm.  Remember, this is the same Kirk Ferentz who told a reporter last season that there wasn't a no-huddle offense in the playbook because "we don't do that kind of thing here."  When asked about whether the no-huddle would stay after its success against Pitt, Ferentz said "well, that's what you guys want, right?"  He said last Thursday that the Hawkeyes had spent the bye week installing their new system:

I think we'll probably go about 50 percent blitz the rest of theseason, 100 percent no-huddle. That's about what we have come up with. That's what we have come up with over the last couple of days here.  Other than that, we have been playing cards and some of the guys have been out golfing and stuff like that.

Ferentz isn't Louis CK, to be sure, but that is as big a joke as you'll ever hear him tell.  He doesn't like this newfangled no-huddle (both he and Norm Parker have repeatedly made the "you know, a three-and-out in a no-huddle doesn't help your defense" warnings for three weeks, too).  

The question is, will Ferentz bite his tongue, accede to the demands of his offensive coordinator, his quarterback, and his fans, and let the offensive progression continue, or will he revert back to the same safe, authoritarian control of the past?  Penn State, more than any team on Iowa's schedule, could allow for the old Iowa gameplan to work.  Their offense is a mess and their defense is dangerous, having generated eleven turnovers in five games.  In the past, this would be a game like 2009 Minnesota, where Iowa would get up by two scores and bleed the clock dry on the back of its defense and the general ineptitude of its opponent.  It's a recipe for "win close or lose closer" and we all know how those games go (though, to be fair, it's crushed Penn State in the past decade).  He also has a very young team preparing not just for this week but for two months in the Big Ten, with his biggest nemesis only a week away.  The shell might make sense this week, but I think we can all agree it doesn't in the future.

Ferentz has made his gesture toward openness and modernity the last two weeks.  The question now becomes whether this was a watershed moment for Iowa's football identity or a fleeting, momentary response to increased external pressure.  That becomes the story of the Penn State game:  Whether the last two games were a head fake or the real thing.  Whether Iowa is going to really do whatever is necessary to win in 2011 and beyond or whether we're willing to forego higher risks and higher rewards to keep one foot in the one-possession, cloud of dust, "need to execute a little better" past.  Whether the offense we saw in the last game and a half is really Magna Carta or whether it's just a fleeting moment of democracy before the military takes over again.