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The Takeaway: Pittsburgh

Sure, Iowa just beat Pittsburgh, 31-27. But how much do we actually know? What was so important about beating Pitt? What does it all mean, Basil? The Takeaway has the answer.

The Cardiac Hawks? Cardiawks? We need a name for this team if this keeps up: So... that happened. The sports information department said that Saturday's win marked the biggest comeback in Iowa football history, but they also said during the game that James Vandenberg's 399 yards were the most since Chuck Long in 198whatever, and that wasn't true; Scott Mullen set a Hawkeye record with 426 yards against Indiana in 1999, so nyeah. We'll say this though -- if it ain't the biggest comeback in Iowa history, it's the biggest in decades*.

The really interesting aspect of this comeback is the fact that for as remarkable as it was, it wasn't lucky. Once Pitt got down to Iowa's 3 yards line with that 24-10 lead, I (and probably many of you) started putting together something of a mental checklist of what Iowa needed to do to still win**. Step one was keeping Pitt out of the end zone, which seemed unlikely given last week's follies but at least more plausible than forcing a turnover (who was I about to kid?). That happened. Step two was march down and score a quick TD, even if Pitt got a field goal. That happened. Step three was get a stop or get another field goal. That happened. Step four was get another quick touchdown (I might remind you all that this was a checklist of what Iowa needed to do to win, not what I expected by any stretch), which would make it a one-possession game, and then let the game reset dictate strategy from there. That happened. And step five, which was getting the ball back without giving up a point and engineering a game-winning drive, obviously happened as well.

I mean, we all know how the last 18 minutes transpired--that by itself isn't a point to be made. My point is that if some of us fans were thinking through the endgame process that early in the game, it's dead certain the Iowa coaches were too (like it's their job or something), and being that the comeback followed such a reasonable course of events the whole way through and didn't depend on something like "Pitt KR fumbles kickoff straight into Jordan Bernstine's arms who happens to be in a dead untouched sprint to the end zone" means that it was, again, not nearly as "lucky" as it was the result of fantastic execution. And really, there's something reassuring about the fact that Iowa's coaches and players never panicked when a lot of us fans sure as shit were, because I don't think Iowa would have gotten anywhere near the comeback if the guys deviated from the plan and started playing 11-man heroball instead. 

Incidentally, the last time Iowa pulled a multi-possession comeback along these lines, manufacturing it and not having it bounce into our proverbial laps, would probably be Penn State '08. There again, with Iowa down 23-14, the team manufactured drives, played solid defense, and didn't try to gamble and score 10 points at once. I realize this reads like a full-throated exhortation of the Kirk Ferentz Process, and HS may ban me from the site as soon as he sees this, but I assure you it is not; I think Ferentz's grasp of game theory is generally risk-averse to a woeful degree, especially when Iowa has at least a share of the lead. That was not the case on Saturday, though, and that's why Iowa pulled such a wonderful comeback without it being flukish. Frankly, that's my favorite kind of comeback. 

We know this team's strength, and it's not the ground game: In some ways, it's not fair to be overly critical of Marcus Coker when he's probably going to end up with something like 1100 yards and 9-10 touchdowns in a season where he had an above-average backup for all of a quarter -- and in his first full season of starting. We're not many knee injuries from going Full 2004 again, y'know. So yeah, the man's a horse, and he's basically Iowa's last hope for a dependable rushing game for the rest of the season.

That said, anyone watching the games can see that Coker has some serious flaws at this point. The early rash of fumbles is obviously the most troubling development thus far, but since Coker didn't put the ball on the ground at all against Pitt, the fumbling isn't quite the issue it appeared to be vs. Tennessee Tech. But Coker's 5-yard acceleration, cuts, and hole vision all appear to be below average at this point. He runs high, too, which doesn't help ball security or changes of direction. And yet, Coker gets stats, because he is a big strong dude, and he's got the build to carry the ball 30 times a game. That is an asset.

Problem, though: Iowa's passing game has a lot of assets too. Marvin McNutt has been even better than expected, which is saying something, but the real story here is that Iowa has not one, not two, but three weapons at wideout alone--probably for the first time since 2002, when Iowa boasted C.J. Jones, Mo Brown, and Ed Hinkel (and o hai Clinton Solomon as a freshman 4WR). Yeah, that 2002 team also had safety valve nonpareil Dallas Clark at TE, and Brad Herman certainly is no Dallas Clark, but the point is Brad Banks had no shortage of talent to throw to, and his numbers reflected it.

So as for this year, thus far, James Vandenberg's 22nd in passing yards per game but 31st in passer efficiency. Meanwhile. Marcus Coker is 43rd in rushing yards per game, but one of only three players in the top 90 rushers per game to average fewer than 4.0 yards per carry. If I had to pick between Vandenberg's arm and Coker's legs for the offense to rush on, the choice isn't even close right now: it's JVB. That's how Iowa got its win on Saturday, and I hope Kirk Ferentz and Ken O'Keefe realize that going forward.

The secondary is a mess, but it's a better mess: Jordan Bernstine is back and flying toward rushing lanes again, and that makes me very happy. The immediate comparison made after the Tennessee Tech game was Bob Sanders, the way Bernstine was putting hits on people, but seeing him in the pursuit game this past Saturday conjured up more memories of Tyler Sash in Sash's first and second years of play than anything. Granted, Sash was far superior in run support in his first couple years with the program, and the fact that Bernstine is a senior means that we should still have a bit of a ceiling on expectations for him for the rest of the year, but we're back to having a pad-popper at safety, and it's basically impossible to remember a good Ferentz defense without one.

This also means that Micah Hyde is back at cornerback, where he should have been the entire time, and Hyde didn't look like he missed a single day of practice as a CB after making two critical picks against Pitt. I'd say this gives Iowa two solid corners yet again, but Shaun Prater seems hell-bent on submarining his draft stock after a second straight subpar week on the other side of the field. Yeah, taking a pick to the house against Tennessee Tech is entertaining, but it's no substitute for field IQ once things start getting weird in the backfield, and it seemed that every time Pitt needed a big play, it was throwing over Prater on the right sideline to get it -- and it worked. Is some of that on Tanner Miller? Yeah, sure.  Miller would probably be the first person to cop to that. But right now, Prater isn't making big-time plays in coverage with any reliability, and that's something Iowa's going to need to depend on going forward.

But as long as Micah Hyde's at CB instead of Greg Castillo, yeah, no complaints, because it could be worse.

There aren't many relaxing Saturdays left, so be forewarned: We had a lot of pessimism in the game threads on Saturday, and we don't exactly blame anybody for it. For the first 42 minutes of play (maybe even the first 48), yeah, that was a really frustrating game, and there wasn't a Hawkeye fan that wasn't feeling the anguish. We were all seeing a situation on the field--Iowa getting blown out--that we hadn't seen in literally over 40 straight games, and it sucked.

All that said, there were a few, shall we say, overly inductive arguments being made in the game threads in the third quarter. The worst examples were calls to bench Vandenberg for good or to fire the entire coaching staff (seriously), but those are extreme examples of a more prevalent condition. Point is, there were a lot of us that had "seen enough" while the eventual Iowa win was still going on, and that were ready to give up long before the team was. That's not a bannable offense by any stretch at BHGP, and we're never going to issue official warnings to anybody on the basis of pure pessimism, but speaking not as a BHGP administrator but a fellow Hawk fan I would like to give the sincere suggestion that the next time any of us want to express our frustration in, shall we say, out-of-the-mainstream fashion, let's at least wait until the game is over to do so, okay?

It's one thing to say "this is unacceptable performance" if the team is putting on a horror show, and it's one thing to turn the game off out of frustration*** for at least a quarter or two, but let's be honest: this is not the last time Iowa is going to be down by double digits this season, and it is not the last time Iowa will frustrate the living Christ out of us. That's all happening again, believe that. But let's at least give the coaches and players until the end of the game to work out what might be temporary issues, because if you ask for a coach to be fired in the middle of what ends up being his biggest comeback victory ever, in the third week of his 12th season as a head coach, you just end up looking like an asshole more than anything. And besides, venting is what the postgame venting thread is before. Let's save the macro angst for there and the in-game observations for the in-game threads; to do otherwise just distracts and incenses fans who are already as frustrated as you are, and it makes temporary antagonists out of people who should be allies. Not fun. We're all Hawkeye fans here, are we not?

But yeah, if someone beats Iowa by 21 points, trot that frustration down to the postgame threads (so long as you follow the most basic of rules re: treating other people like actual people), and let it fly. It'll be more satisfying that way anyway.



*Interesting fact discovered while looking for games where Iowa could have conceivably made a comeback larger than Saturday's: Kirk Ferentz has won quite a few games at Iowa--91 in all. He has allowed 22+ points in just 14 of those wins. Yes, that's a lot of stellar defensive performances, but considering Iowa has also lost 45 such games under Ferentz, you can't exactly blame fans for getting pessimistic as hell when Pitt scored that third touchdown to make it 24-3. Yeah, a 14-45 record once Iowa gives up 22 points. 13-28 even after we apply the Northwestern Filter of Revisionist History and pretend 1999 and 2000 never happened. I know Iowa plays slow games, but this is not a good look.

**I did not do this when the score was 24-3, because all I wanted to do was eat my remote and let the chips fall where they may re my short- and long-term health at that point, but I opted not to since I didn't want my girlfriend to be stuck watching the rest of that game. Suffice it to say, though, I missed a lot of the ensuing touchdown drive under the pretense of covering PSU-Temple. I admit it.

***This dovetails nicely with the earlier footnote or whatever you call it with asterisks instead of numbers, but I think my favorite idiotic meme is when people who give up on the game demand some sort of credit when their team wins. Like, "oh, looks like the comeback happened after I turned off the game. Glad I did that, if I hadn't done that the Hawkeyes would have lost!" No. That is stupid superstitious nonsense. What you did with your television had no bearing on the game whatsoever. Neither you nor your television is a participant in the game. Only a child should pretend otherwise.