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Iowa Football Misery Index: Was Iowa’s Loss to Purdue the Worst in Program History?

In the time it took you to read this subheading, David Bell just scored another touchdown against the Hawkeyes.

Syndication: HawkCentral Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

Iowa’s 24-7 loss to Purdue was an unmitigated disaster. Iowa QB Spencer Petras made poor decisions, proved incapable of making plays when the pocket broke down, and threw a career high four interceptions with three of the picks occurring inside the Purdue 30-yard line. Iowa’s offensive line was a sieve in both run and pass blocking, surrendering four sacks, six QB hurries, eight TFLs, and rarely giving Petras a clean pocket.

The Hawkeye defensive line was virtually invisible and was incapable of creating pressure, giving Purdue QB Aiden O’Connell all day to throw when Iowa did not send additional blitzers and allowing him to pick apart the secondary whenever it did. Perhaps most frustrating of all, Iowa proved that three years was still insufficient time for them to concoct any plan to defend Boilermaker wideout David Bell, who had more receiving yards on Saturday (240) than any Iowa wide receiver currently has on the season, a stat which says everything one needs to know about why the Hawkeyes lost. Frankly, Iowa was lucky the final score was not worse, as TJ Sheffield’s fumble inches from the end zone spared Iowa the humility of surrendering yet another touchdown to an inferior and unranked opponent.

As I watched Iowa’s hopes for an undefeated season and a clear path to the College Football Playoff crumble before my eyes, I was struck by the thought that this might be the most devastating loss in program history; the Hawkeyes are rarely ranked as high as #2 in the country, and for the team to lose so decisively at home to an unranked opponent with so much at stake this season seemed uniquely brutal even by Iowa football standards. Fearing that recency bias might be clouding my judgement and looking to put my current state of misery in the proper historical context, I decide to dig through the anals (misspelling very intentional) of Iowa football to determine just how Saturday’s loss stacks up against the most gut-wrenching in program history. I decided to evaluate Iowa’s losses based on four distinct factors:

A) Iowa’s ranking at the time of the loss

This category allows me to exclude games where unremarkable/bad Iowa teams lose to opponents that were perceived to be even worse than the Hawkeyes were (Central Michigan in 2012, Minnesota in 2009, Iowa State most times they beat Iowa). These losses were objectively awful, but slightly less deflating given that they happened further from the national spotlight and when the team had much less at stake.

B) Quality of the opponent

Losing an important game is always hard to swallow, but fans can at least wrap their heads around a loss against a highly ranked opponent. Was it really so crazy that 2009 Iowa team might lose on the road against #10 Ohio State when starting its backup quarterback? Or fall to Penn State at home in 2019? Respectable losses to good teams hurt, but they don’t carry the shame that comes with faceplanting against an opponent your team was expected to steamroll.

C) Margin of defeat

There is something about being on the wrong end of a blowout that really makes a loss stay with you. Fans can cling to positive moments in competitive losses (Akrum Wadley’s explosive plays against Penn State in 2017, Tevaun Smith’s touchdown against Michigan State in 2015, DJK’s kick return against Ohio State in 2009), but there is no silver lining to be had in being thoroughly worked over by your opponent, particularly when the final score shatters any national narrative about the strength of your program.

D) How it felt in the moment

It’s impossible to say at this stage how the Purdue loss will age—if Purdue wins 9-10 games this season, Iowa fans may have a better understanding of how this Boilermaker team was able to so thoroughly wax the Hawkeyes on their home turf. Accordingly, hindsight will not factor into these rankings: this misery index is all about how devastating a particular loss was in the moment relative to Iowa fans’ expectations and the goals of the team. For example, while Iowa’s 2002 loss to Iowa State looks dreadful in hindsight since it cost the Hawkeyes their undefeated regular season, Hawkeye fans had no reason to realistically believe such a feat was possible at that time in the year, so the stakes of the loss seemed limited to in-state bragging rights.

With that being said, I present to you the Iowa Football Misery Index, complete with the worst, most unexpected, gut-wrenching losses in program history.

10. Tie: West Cost Jetlag

1988- #9 Iowa: 24, Hawaii: 27

2004- #16 Iowa: 7, Arizona State: 44

2010- #9 Iowa: 27, Arizona: 34

When will Iowa’s athletic directors learn not to schedule these long road trips west?

In 1988, the 9th-ranked Hawkeyes traveled all the way to Aloha Stadium only to be outscored 13-3 in the 4th quarter and blow multiple chances to win in the game’s final minutes. Iowa had a go-ahead touchdown called back due to a holding penalty and missed a 44-yard field goal that would have given the Hawkeyes the lead with 17 seconds remaining in the game. Instead, the Hawks fell to a Rainbow Warrior team that had finished 5-7 the previous season.

At least the 1988 Hawkeyes presumably got some time on the beach during their trip to Hawaii. The Ferentz-era excursions to Arizona dealt devastating early-season losses to highly-regarded Hawkeye squads and likely removed the Grand Canyon State from Kirk’s list of potential retirement destinations. The 04 Sun Devils outgained the Hawkeyes 511 yards to 100 and kept Iowa off the board until a kick return touchdown with 30 seconds remaining in the game. Meanwhile, the 2010 Wildcats proved that any residual magic from Iowa’s 2009 season had long since faded by jumping out to a 27-7 lead and withstanding a furious comeback attempt by the Hawkeyes.

Misery Index Level: Third-degree sunburn

9. 2005- #8 Iowa: 3, Iowa State: 23

Losing to a hated in-state rival is bad enough, but a 20-point loss to an unranked opponent that had struggled to put away Illinois State only one week before is on an entirely different plane of misery. The Hawkeyes dropped 14 spots in the polls after their offense fell apart against the Cyclones, the team’s status as a dark horse Big Ten and national title contender never fully recovered, and Hawkeye supporters were condemned to a fate worse than death: listening to Cyclone fans gloat for the next calendar year.

Misery Index Level: Throwing an interception and concussing yourself while attempting to tackle the ballcarrier

8. Tie: Big Ten Blues

1985- #1 Iowa: 13, #8 Ohio State: 22

2015- #4 Iowa: 13, #5 Michigan State: 16

Two chances for Iowa to finish as undefeated conference champions, two narrow defeats. The Hawkeyes’ 1985 loss to the Buckeyes occurred on a soaked field during a torrential rainstorm, raising eternal questions about whether the high-flying Iowa offense might have persevered in different weather conditions. Meanwhile, Iowa’s heart-wrenching loss to Michigan State denied the Hawkeyes a near-certain berth to the College Football Playoff, something which still eludes them to date.

Misery Index Level: Being crushed by Sisphyus’ bolder

7. 1960- #1 Iowa: 10, #3 Minnesota: 27

There is no shame in losing to the #3 team in the country, but the margin of victory, rivalry game implications, and context of the loss (8-2 Minnesota was crowned the eventual national champions that year over 8-1 Iowa on the strength of the Gophers’ head-to-head victory) make this defeat particularly painful.

Misery Index Level: Mauled to death by a pack of rabid rodents

6. 2016- #13 Iowa: 21, North Dakota State: 23

You can talk about North Dakota State’s sixteen national championships and remind people that the Bison had won five national titles in the past five seasons. You can mention how the program has produced NFL talent in players like Carson Wentz and Trey Lance. You can even point out that the Bison had received votes in AP Top 25 poll the week they played against the Hawkeyes. None of these factors excuse the defending Big Ten West champions losing to an FCS program at home. Oh, how the mighty had fallen.

Misery Index Level: Trampled by a stampede of endangered land mammals

5. 2009- #4 Iowa: 10, Northwestern: 17

With an undefeated season, a Big Ten Championship, and a potential BCS Championship bid on the line, the Hawkeyes had no business losing at home to a 5-4 Northwestern team whose resume included a loss to Syracuse and narrow wins over Eastern Michigan and Miami (OH). Yet with one hit from Corey Wooton, the Hawkeyes’ dreams of a championship season crumbled like the ligaments in poor Ricky Stanzi’s ankle.

Misery Index Level: Skinny dipping in Lake Michigan during a snowstorm

4. 1961- #5 Iowa: 0, Purdue: 9

Yep, these guys again. The Boilermakers blanked the undefeated Hawkeyes on the road, torpedoing first-year coach Jerry Burns’ quest for an undefeated season and a Big Ten Championship and giving Iowa fans the first sign that things would be different for the program with Forest Evashevski leaving the sideline for the Athletic Director’s office. This loss was bad at the time but is even worse in hindsight; the Hawkeyes lost their next three games, finished the year 5-4 after being the preseason #1 team, and wouldn’t have another winning season until 1981.

Misery Index Level: Being imprisoned inside the Big Brass Drum

3. Tie: Turd in the Punch Bowl

1986 Rose Bowl- #4 Iowa: 28, #13 UCLA: 45

2003 Orange Bowl- #3 Iowa: 17, #5 USC: 38

2016 Rose Bowl- #5 Iowa: 16, #6 Stanford: 45

Honestly, wouldn’t it have been better if the Hawkeyes had simply decided not to show up to these games? The month-long buildup combined with the precipitous letdown left painful memories that Iowa fans aren’t likely to forget any time soon. Ronnie Harmon fumbled so many times that some Iowa fans actually suspected him of throwing the game, the 03 Orange Bowl was all downhill after the opening kickoff, and the things Christian McCaffery did to the Iowa defense are still considered illegal in most states. These losses might have topped the list if not for the quality of Iowa’s opponents in the three bowl games in question, as national pundits all recognized that Iowa was at least losing to quality opponents instead of getting housed by the dregs of the Big Ten.

Misery Index Level: Paying thousands of dollars and traveling thousands of miles just so you can watch your team get annihilated while some idiot dudebro from California asks whether Iowa is the state with the potatoes

2. 2021- #2 Iowa: 7, Purdue: 24

At least Iowa’s losses to UCLA, USC, and Stanford came against undisputedly talented teams on a neutral field. For the Hawkeyes to lose as badly as they did at home against a middling Purdue team with so much to play for this season is as baffling and frustrating a defeat as any the program has endured in nearly 40 years.

Misery Level Index: Receiving a lobotomy from Purdue Pete

1. 1983- #4 Iowa: 0, Illinois: 33

This is it: the most shocking choke job by a highly ranked Iowa team in program history. The Hawkeyes were undefeated entering October of 1983 and riding high off a statement victory over #3 Ohio State the week prior. On deck was a trip to play a 2-1 Illinois squad that had already lost to a middling Missouri team earlier that season. With a loaded roster featuring players like Chuck Long, Bob Stoops, John Alt, and Joel Hilgenberg and one of the most stacked coaching staffs of all time, how could the Hawkeyes not keep rolling on to a Big Ten Championship and a shot at the national title?

Instead of building on their win over the Buckeyes, Iowa absolutely imploded against the Illini, taking their championship dreams along with them. Illinois proceeded to win the rest of its Big Ten games en route to a conference championship, while Iowa tumbled out of the Top Ten for the remainder of the regular season and never sniffed a share of the national title. Illinois’ success over the remainder of the season makes this loss seem far better in hindsight, but the margin of defeat, Iowa’s high ranking, and shock of the upset at the time give this loss an unenviable place in Hawkeye football history. With one humiliating defeat, Iowa went from conference title favorite to Illinois’ little brother, and truly what could be more depressing than that?

Misery Level Index: Remembering not that a Top Five Iowa team lose by 33 points to Illinois, but that Tim Brewster played on that team and no Hawkeye should ever lose to Tim Brewster at anything.

Well, there you have it. The Purdue loss was objectively terrible, but maybe not quite the most disappointing thing to happen to Iowa football in its long history. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go cry in the shower and try to remember that, far more often than not, the Iowa football program gives its fans plenty of reasons to smile, even if it does occasionally make them want to pull their hair out.

Go Hawks!