Kirk Ferentz and close games. It’s been discussed so many times, but here we are again. With a chance to win the West, Iowa closed out the season with a 2-point loss and a 3-point overtime loss. Add in a 3-point loss to Iowa State and a 7-point loss to Maryland, and the close loss thing is a thing again.
In the wake of the 4-team playoff being announced, I was listening to someone on sports radio talking about style points and Florida State and some old coaching mantra about just being one play better than the other team. The guy’s point was about coaches and players just wanting to win, whether it be by 40 points or just one point, and that it just take one more play to go your way to win by one. Anyway…
As easy and cathartic as it can be to blame Kirk Ferentz and Greg Davis and all the other coaches, the Hawkeyes were really just that one play away from having a good year, even a great year. One play in 4 of Iowa’s 5 losses would have made all the difference.
In some games it is easier than others to pick out that one play.
Maryland -- What if Jake Duzey hadn’t fumbled around midfield at the beginning of the second quarter and all the momentum shifted in the Terps' direction?
Wisconsin -- There were countless plays to choose from… what if Melvin Gordon’s fumble hadn't bounced back to the Badgers? What if that 3rd-and-13 play hadn't gone for 35 yards? What if Stave hadn't been able to get a first down with his feet on that 3rd-and-8 play?
Nebraska -- Even with four first half turnovers, Iowa still had the lead and had a shot to put the game out of reach. Unfortunately, Jake Rudock’s pass to a completely wide open Damond Powell was also out of reach, and Nebraska was able to claw its way back.
Iowa State - It was just a couple of critical defensive penalties that gave this game away. A personal foul by Jordan Lomax sparked the Cyclones' go-ahead TD drive in the 4th quarter. Then, after Iowa tied the game back up, a holding penalty on a 3rd-and-6 play and an offside call on a 3rd-and-9 play on the final drive helped ISU get into field goal range.
Well, that was fun...
So, a few positive notes: in all of Iowa’s close losses (I’m just ignoring the Minnesota game in this post), the Iowa offense made plays late in the 4th quarter that put them in position to win, or at least have a chance to win. Against ISU, there was a late tying FG drive. There was a hectic comeback against Maryland and even a successful onside kick. Against Wisconsin Iowa pulled within two points twice in the fourth quarter. And against Nebraska, after giving up a big lead, Iowa fought back to take the lead with less than two minutes to go. It wasn’t just in losses that the offense showed something in the 4th quarter, either. When UNI had pulled within one point, Iowa responded with a late touchdown drive to seal the game. The Ball State win required two late desperation touchdown drives. And the Pitt win was also secured with a fourth quarter touchdown.
Also, while these four losses (and the entire non-conference schedule) was classic Ferentz, the four wins in the B1G that Iowa achieved were often in a pleasant and non-Ferentz fashion. Iowa dominated the three teams that finished below them in the West, plus lowly Indiana. These were all teams that Iowa had a talent advantage over and should have beaten easily. And they did! Shocking.
This team, in conference play at least, wasn’t letting inferior teams hang around. It wan’t just building a lead and hanging on for dear life. It was going out, putting points on the board, and smothering bad offenses. And I can’t remember an Iowa team doing that ever. Even some of Iowa’s best teams struggled to put away the bottom dwellers of the B1G. In 2009, it took a crazy fourth quarter to beat Indiana and there was that awful Northwestern game. :( In 2004, Iowa beat a very mediocre Purdue by just two points and barely survived against Minnesota, who went 6-5, as the Gophers missed a potential game-winning field goal. 2002 is probably the only other year that Iowa really dominated the bad teams, but that year also had the famous Purdue victory (though Purdue also wasn't that bad back then).
I’m not even sure where I’m going with all of this. It’s mostly back to frustration. There were enough good things that Iowa showed at times this year that those four close losses seem even more painful. So where can that one play more come from? Is it better coaching? Just better execution? One player just wanting it a little more and stepping up?
Or maybe that's football.