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Overreaction Monday: Red Dead Redemption

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There were disappointments along the way, but the Iowa Hawkeyes finished the year right where we thought they would. And they got some glorious redemption with a massive beatdown of Nebraska to cap off the year.

Iowa v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

Just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse, just when the offensive output of this football team turned downright offensive, just when we were all ready to turn our attention for the year to basketball, just when basketball gave us a week to wonder what we would turn our attention to next, just when we didn’t think it could get much worse...

The Hawkeyes went and hung 50 on perhaps our most arrogant rival to finish the regular season at 7-5.

Listen, I’m not going to sit here on this fine Monday morning and act like 7-5 is how I hoped this season would end. It’s not what we, as Iowa fans, should be happy with, or expect on a regular basis. But anyone with any sense of a pulse on the Iowa football program heading into this season would’ve told you to expect this to be a bit of a rebuilding year. Vegas was predicting 6 wins and many of the prognosticators were as well. I was a bit more optimistic, but only the crazy optimistic among us had much more than an 8-4 record and that was wishful thinking.

This team is what its record says it is. It’s a 7-5 football team. But it’s also a bit more than that. It’s a team with a TON of promise. We knew it would be young heading into the year and that youth—especially at the QB and WR positions—was one reason most weren’t expecting a huge year.

I think we all can agree those questions at QB and WR have largely been answered. Sure, there are some head-scratching moments (probably more than we’d like, but that comes with the youth). There are inexcusable drops and random fumbles while trying to pass to open receivers from the opponent’s 10 yard line. But there’s also a sophomore QB who still has a shot to break Chuck Long’s season TD passing record as a true sophomore and some weapons on the outside we haven’t seen in quite some time (Ihmir Smith-Marsette showed Friday just how special he can be). So. Much. Promise.

Perhaps nobody was as big a beneficiary (or contributor) of the development of Nate Stanley this season than fellow true sophomore TE Noah Fant, who caught 28 passes this season for 486 yards and TEN (10) touchdowns. That incredible TD total is good enough for third all-time in a season and there’s still a game left to go. He’s up to 11 total for his young career, only 2 shy of the career high among Iowa TEs. And on the season, 25 of his 28 receptions were for either first downs or touchdowns. The kid is a budding star.

And perhaps the biggest reason this team didn’t attain more than the 7-5 record we sit with this morning is the injuries suffered early in the season along the offensive line. It’s easy to forget 12 games in that the two offensive tackles we’ve seen for months now were not the guys we expected to see trotting out there back in August. Instead, thanks to injuries to both Boone Myers and Ike Boettger, we’ve been watching the development of a RS freshman at LT in Alaric Jackson and a true freshman at RT in Tristan Whirfs. It’s quite understandable there might be some growing pains given those circumstances.

And while it was painful from time to time (looking at you, Wisconsin, Purdue, Minnesota, Northwestern, Michigan State.....) and the running game never was what we all thought it would be with a new play caller in Brian Ferentz, a dynamic playmaker in Akrum Wadley and the addition of a really talented back like James Butler (it really is a shame the nickname BUTWAD never got a chance to really prosper thanks to Butler’s injury), we got to see on Saturday what we thought we might see all year. Akrum Wadley went wild, rushing for 159 yards and 3 TDs on 19 carries. The performance put Wadley where he belongs: in the Iowa Football record books. The big game pushed him over 1000 yards on the year. That’s the second straight season he’s topped 1000 yards, making him only the 4th RB in Iowa history to do so (along with Sedric Shaw, Ladell Betts and Fred Russell). He also becomes the only Iowa RB to EVER rush for 1000 yards and catch 25 passes in consecutive seasons.

Make no mistake, Akrum Wadley will go down as one of the all time greats at Iowa. And that’s going to be tough to replace come next season. But the foundation is set with the guys mentioned above, guys who got an opportunity to show off their stuff this season and last weekend like Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin.

There will be struggles on the defensive side of the ball as well. The spectacular performance we’ve seen from Josh Jackson has vaulted his NFL draft stock into the first round, and it’s a foregone conclusion he will be gone next year. There are question marks where we didn’t expect them in August with guys like Manny Rugamba and Michael Ojemudia.

But we may have found some answers in that secondary on Saturday. Amani Hooker has been a bright spot at safety all season, filling in for the injured Brandon Snyder, but the emergence of true freshman Geno Stone on Saturday with Miles Taylor going to injury is something to watch. Stone, in his first major action of the year, led the team with 8 tackles and did very well in coverage. He’s a heady player with the physical tools you’d expect out of an upperclassman as just a freshman. If the CB situation gets solidified, the defensive secondary could be very good next season.

The major question mark lays with the linebackers. Replacing a trio of starters is nearly impossible to do. Doing so when one of them is one of the greatest to ever play the position for Iowa is insurmountable. But the depth behind Josey Jewell, Ben Nieman and Bo Bower is solid, and I have no doubt will be serviceable to the point we won’t see a terrible defense on the field.

And if nothing else, things should get a littler easier on the schedule front. It’s easy to forget that through all the ups and downs of this season, Iowa played one of the most difficult schedules in the country. All three of the non-conference opponents will be bowling this season (yes, even Iowa State with their “historic” 7-5 season, sigh), including North Texas who will be playing for a Conference USA championship next weekend.

Things get much softer next year, though perhaps not as soft as 2015 or Wisconsin’s slate this year. It’s easy to get your hopes up looking to the future. The recruiting class is shaping up nicely again. The young contributors we saw this season could be the stars of next year.

Things could easily go south. The injury bug could strike once again. Perhaps the offensive play calling looks more like it did in some of those low output games. Maybe the new linebacking crew takes too long to figure things out, or replacing BUTWAD is just not possible. There are lots of what-ifs.

But there are just as many what-ifs that fill the glass half full. What if Brian Ferentz takes the offseason to evaluate what worked and what didn’t and we end up seeing more of the gameplans we saw against Nebraska and Ohio State than those used against Purdue or Northwestern? What if the offensive line grows together with the extra practices and scrimmages to open up holes and cutback lanes that don’t require a back of Wadley’s talents to exploit them? What if Nate Stanley, with his 25 TD passes, builds even more chemistry with guys like Noah Fant, TJ Hockenson, Nick Easley and Ihmir Smith-Marsette?

It’s amazing how different we can feel after a huge win over a struggling rival. And perhaps some perspective is needed. After all, that was a historically bad Nebraska team Iowa faced on Friday. But maybe historically bad is just the trend for that program? Maybe Iowa is just better now? The win for the Hawkeyes marked just the third time an opponent has won 3 consecutive against Nebraska in the last 40 years.

It’s also the second time in the last 3 years the Huskers have opted to fire their head coach after facing Iowa. They seem to be headed one direction, and it’s not up. The departure of Mike Riley marks the end of a new approach after they canned Bo Pelini.

It also means they are paying almost as much for two guys to NOT coach their team as Iowa is paying a guy TO coach its team. Add in the cost for their AD issues and a new coach and you’re talking about a heck of a lot of money for what is sure to be a pretty mediocre football team in Lincoln next year. And I’m confident in Iowa’s chances come Black Friday.

So at the end of the day, be thankful for what we have. There are some major headaches that come along the way. There are games that make us question why we watch and what the hell is going on. But at the end of the ride, we’re right where we thought we would be.

The future remains bright, much better than some of our neighbors. We’ve seen glimpses of greatness this season and it should give us hope for next season. We’ve also seen what can happen when you take things for granted and forget who you really are.

7-5 isn’t who Iowa is and it isn’t acceptable as an annual result in Iowa City, but Friday’s result was a damn fine way to end a season that was nothing like we expected, except that it was.

Happy Monday. Go Hawks. Be thankful for what we have and savor the glory that is a beatdown of the Huskers. This team can be maddening, but they’re also a hell of a lot of fun. Now, if we can just get a damn bowl win.....