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Overreaction Monday: Same Stuff, Different Season

The Hawkeyes had a chance to take control of their own destiny Saturday. Instead, they squandered the opportunity in Happy Valley.

NCAA Football: Iowa at Penn State
Another season, another letdown in the big moment.
Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Every season, there’s a point at which I ask my self the same question: why do I keep doing this? Why do I allow myself to become emotionally invested in the outcome of recreational events between young men, most of which aren’t even old enough to legally drink?

I’ve yet to come up with a good answer, but here I am. Another season, more emotional investment in the result of college football games. As an Iowa fan, that of course means more disappointment.

No matter the talent, the coaching or the season, there is one unavoidable truth as a Hawkeye fan: we cannot have nice things. Ever.

So here we are this Monday morning. Coming off of what was billed as the epic beginning to the Hawkeyes’ redemption tour as they look to avenge several defeats from a season ago. it was billed as an opportunity to burst onto the national stage; an opportunity to jump into the driver’s seat in the Big Ten West. It was supposed to be a chance get back to Indianapolis and possibly the College Football Playoff.

It was all those things.

And for much of the first quarter, it looked like for once in our Hawkeye fandom, this was an Iowa team poised to face the challenge and meet it head on.

Iowa’s defense came out and held firm against Penn State on their opening possession. That much was not unexpected. But when the Nittany Lions’ punter bobbled the ensuing snap and Dominique Daffney came away with the block for a safety, I know I’m not the only one who had visions of that magical 2009 trip to Happy Valley.

Imhir Smith-Marietta has a solid return on the ensuing free kick and I’d be lying if I said my hopes weren’t sky high.

The first sign that things may not go well for the offense came on the very first offensive snap. I liked the play-action call out of the gate, but Stanley appeared to look at one receiver and one receiver only before throwing the ball away. Problem was he wasn’t out of the pocket and Iowa was called for intentional grounding on the first offensive snap of the game.

But my hopes stayed up as Stanley came out and threw a dart to TJ Hockenson down the seem the very next play and the Hawkeyes were in business inside the Penn State 30. When the Nittany Lions were flagged for a face mask on what would have been a big 3rd down stop, I started to believe maybe things were meant to be.

Again, signs it wasn’t meant to be creeped in when Ivory Kelly-Martin rushes to what looked like the PSU 2, but instead Iowa snapped it from the 4 and Nate Stanley locked in on Nick Easley. He completely missed Hockenson running all by himself across the front of the end zone with his defender laying on the ground. He was hit as he threw anyway and in a game where the offense would need to score, the Hawkeyes came away with only 3 points.

The defense came out and for the second straight drive totally dominated Penn State, ultimately coming away with a sack on third and long. While there was no botched punt, Iowa started with the ball in Nittany Lions territory. For the second straight drive they marched inside the opponent’s 10 yard line. For the second straight drive they failed to punch it in despite having open receivers in the end zone.

This time, however, the special teams unit bailed them out with a magical play that just may have outdone the infamous polecat of a season ago. Playing off the formation they showed on their first field goal, punter Colten Rastetter took the snap and threw a beautiful over the shoulder pass to defensive lineman Sam Brincks, who hailed in the touchdown pass as well as any receiver.

12-0 Hawkeyes and I legitimately had the thought that perhaps this was the year. Maybe this was the year Iowa rises to the occasion. Maybe this was the year the Hawkeyes walk into a big game on the road and don’t just eek out a win, but dominate a good opponent. The defense looked unstoppable and the ball was bouncing their way.

This was peak Iowa fandom. You spend your life trying to temper expectations, knowing the history. You try not to get too high because we’ve always been let down. And yet here we are. Dominating a top-20 Penn State team on the road through 34 of the first quarter.

That’s when Lucy pulled the proverbial football out from in front of us. The Nittany Lions came out and marched 85 yards on what had to that point been an impressive Iowa defense. Instead of being up by two or even three (had Iowa converted on their first trip inside the 10) scores, they were up just 5.

The offense would proceed to go 3 and out and you could feel the momentum slipping. But Lucy was there to assure us she wouldn’t pick up the football again. The defense responded to the big drive with a 3 and out of their own. Adding injury to insult, star QB Trace McSorley injures his knee on that third down. On the ensuing punt, the snap went over the head of the punter and Iowa was spotted another 2 points.

Iowa fans everywhere: “maybe this is the year?”

Sigh. With a 14-7 lead and excellent field position yet again, the offense looked nothing like the offense we’ve seen the last three weeks, instead reverting to what Hawkeye fans have known and hated for years.

On third and one from around midfield, Nate Stanley fakes a handoff that fooled the world. He came away with the ball and TJ Hockenson running as open as he would have been in a drill without the defense. Stanley overthrew him by several yards. It should have been six.

Instead, Hawkeye fans found themselves lying flat on their backs with Lucy standing over them, cackling. Such is life as an Iowa fan.

Stanley came out on Iowa’s next possession and proceeded to stare down every target, then throw it nowhere near where he was staring. That ultimately ended in a brutal interception on a pass to a guy who wasn’t open, but Nate hadn’t taken his eyes off of. The pass was thrown such that only a defender even had a chance at it. Had Stanley even glanced off his primary receiver, he would have seen Noah Fant running free in the middle of the field for a first down. That was a common occurrence for Stanley, who finished a staggering 18 of 49 passing.

There was really poor play all day with some questionable coaching sprinkled in - little something for every kind of frustrated Hawkeye fan. The decision to go for it on 4th and 10 from the Penn State 42 at the end of the first half comes to mind.

We’ve all marveled at the transformation of Kirk Ferentz from conservative turtler to river boat gambler when it comes to trick plays and going for it on 4th down. This one came back to bite him as the Nittany Lions turned the failed conversion into 3 points and a tie in a game Iowa should have nearly put away.

Throwing 15 of the first 25 plays in the second half with a quarterback who was struggling as mightily as Stanley was another head scratcher.

The ultimate one, though, came with the game on the line and completely within the grasp of this struggling Iowa offense. Iowa fans were sold another bill of false hope when Geno Stone intercepted McSorley and found his way to the endzone to make it a 3-point game. After a Nittany Lion field goal, the Iowa offense finally looked like it found some semblance of a rhythm.

Facing first and goal with the ball on the Penn State 3 yard line, down by 6, Brian Ferentz elected to come out in a spread formation with Toren Young in the backfield with Stanley. Complicating matters, it took the staff until there was only 18 seconds left on the play clock to even make a call.

The offense didn’t get lined up until there was roughly 10 seconds left and immediately Nate Stanley started barking orders. He proceeded to kill the called play with only 4 seconds on the play clock. Seeing an impending penalty, Kirk Ferentz came running onto the field to call timeout. The field judge in the back corner of the end zone saw it, but failed to grant it in time.

Instead, Stanley furiously calls for the snap and gets it, but Noah Fant is still trying to relay the message to the receivers and doesn’t get his block for what looked like a decently set up quick pass to Toren Young out of the backfield. But without the Fant block, Penn State’s Nick Scott runs free and easily intercepts Stanley’s overthrow. End of opportunity. Lucy 3, Iowa fans 0.

You can hear both Ferentz and Stanley recount what happened here.

The Hawkeyes did get the ball back for one last glimmer of hope, but it wasn’t meant to be. In what was a genuinely strange game, things ended with Nate Stanley pitching the ball to offensive tackle Tristan Whirfs, who actually ran for the first down, but time expired.

Sigh. Another excellent opportunity come and gone. Same sh*t, different season.

I think what’s most frustrating as a Hawkeye fan is not that it seems we’ve seen this movie before, but that this movie genuinely felt like it could have a different ending. And it came with so much meaning.

This loss is bigger than just missing the playoffs this season. As disappointing as that is, this was a chance for the program to turn a corner in a way we haven’t and Wisconsin has. Running the table to close out the year seemed like a serious possibility and with the Badger loss already in the books, a return to Indianapolis was within grasp. An invite to the College Football Playoff was within sight. And this team is returning a LOT next year.

This was an opportunity to put together a pair of seasons unlike anything we’ve seen in the last 15 years at Iowa. There was a legitimate possibility of back-to-back trips to Indianapolis. Make those trips and there’s a possibility of back-to-back trips to the playoff. It seems like a distant pipe dream, but with nearly every offensive weapon slated to return (with Fant being the obvious candidate to leave early) and all but a couple members of the defense returning next year, it was there.

That kind of national presence over a couple years can do wonders for a team on the recruiting trail and in the minds of college football fans everywhere.

We can never have nice things.

But because we are Hawkeye fans, we will again find hope. We will always find hope. Right now, that means believing Wisconsin will lose yet again this season. Based on all we’ve seen, that seems likely. It also means believing this Iowa team is capable of winning out. The jury is out on that one.

If the offense can figure things out (and that includes how to throw the ball in poor weather), the defense is good enough to get the job done. It’s perhaps no longer an expectation the way it felt heading into the weekend. And maybe that’s a good thing. But it’s still a very real possibility.

Despite the opportunity lost, if those two things happens, we are still looking at a 10-win Iowa team headed back to Indianapolis. The playoffs are long gone, but that would certainly still qualify as a special season and would far surpass the expectations of many a Hawkeye fan at the outset of the season.

And all those things I said about next season? They still apply. The schedule is certainly more difficult, but back-to-back seasons with Iowa ranked in the top 10 are still a very real possibility.

This loss stings. It feels like so many losses before it with points left on the field and opportunities squandered. But the sun continues to rise in the east and all hope is not lost.

For Hawkeye fans, we’ll continue to find reasons for both optimism and pessimism. We’ll be back to believing in this team, believing this will be the time it’s different. One day, it will.

Happy Monday. On to the next one. Let’s beat Our Most Hated Rivals. Go Hawks.