It was perfect fall weather for the final regular season game of the Iowa’s 2022 campaign and everything was set up perfectly for the home team. We already know the story: the Hawks suffered a bumpy start to the year and eventually hit what seemed like rock bottom after a blowout loss to Ohio State on October 22. Nearly a month later, Iowa had rattled off four straight wins and, thanks to a gritty win at Minnesota and an Illinois loss, sat comfortably in the drivers seat for the Big Ten West division title.
One more win and Iowa would return to Indianapolis for the second straight year. One more win against a Nebraska team they hadn’t lost to since 2014. One more win against a team whose defense had struggled and whose offense was inconsistent. One more win and the crowd at Kinnick Stadium could watch this team who had fought through so much go out on top of the West.
That one game turned out to be one of the biggest implosions of Kirk Ferentz’s tenure as Iowa’s head coach.
You’ll probably find no better example of Murphy’s Law than yesterday’s 24-17 loss to the Cornhuskers. All Iowa had to do was play sound football and manage at least some competency on offense. Instead they suffered injuries to key contributors, terrible play calling, failures of execution, and turnovers at the worst possible times. Nebraska was only too happy to take advantage of very opportunity. This was a complete team loss.
It didn’t take long for things to start going south. After Iowa’s first possession, a three and out that went for a grand total of zero yards, Nebraska marched 45 yards before being stopped at the Iowa 15. A missed field goal was merely a mirage of optimism for the collapse yet to come, because during that drive Cooper DeJean left the game due to injury and it was a loss Iowa’s defense could not overcome.
Nebraska’s next possession took one play. One play, 87 yards, touchdown, Huskers up 7-0. Quarterback Casey Thompson was more than happy to pick on DeJean’s backups, as both TJ Hall and Jamison Heinz struggled to make up for the loss of the starter. Nebraska receiver Trey Palmer notched nine receptions for 165 yards and two touchdowns by the end of the game. One day, both Hall and Heinz may be the next great Phil Parker defensive backs, but today their youth and inexperience hurt.
The long touchdown pass was bad. But what worse were the miscues and turnovers the Iowa offense committed to give the Huskers both short fields and momentum. After the long bomb to Palmer, Spencer Petras was sacked at his own 39 and fumbled the ball away. That lead to a Nebraska field goal and Petras’ exit from the game with an arm injury. Alex Padilla took the reins of the offense and also fumbled after being sacked for a loss of 18. With Nebraska’s subsequent touchdown the Hawks faced a 17-0 deficit, which would grow to 24-0 after a muffed punt by Arland Bruce IV. The game, Heroes Trophy, and Iowa’s West Division hopes, already seeming lost.
Amazingly, Iowa was able to make it a one-score game at 24-17, thanks to a second half rally which took place in the slowest, uneven, most-Iowa way possible. But the carriage turned into a pumpkin with under a minute left in the game as the Iowa offense’s last play in Kinnick Stadium this year was an interception on 4th and 8. So much that this team struggled, clawed, and fought for over the last month was gone.
Maybe I shouldn’t be disappointed. Maybe I should have known better than to get my hopes up after that four-game winning streak. Maybe I was grasping at any straw I could find to believe this season could be more than a disjointed, sloppy, mess only to have the scab ripped off anyway. There were plenty of folks who may say they didn’t want to go to Indianapolis only to get blasted by Ohio State or Michigan. Some feared winning the division would validate the questionable coaching and personnel decisions the law firm of Kirk and Son have made. But winning a division title still means something no matter how you get there. Winning one is hard, winning two years in a row is harder. I wanted to see this team I love win because seeing “West Division Champions” next to their name is what every fan goes into the season wanting to see. This team stuck together through a storm of criticisms and came out stronger because of it. It’s just a shame they got so close to the finish line only to trip on their own feet. Technically, there is still a chance Iowa wins the West. Should Purdue and Illinois lose today the division crown will fall to the Hawkeyes. But the odds of that happening are about as good as Iowa’s offense overcoming that 24 point deficit yesterday. Once again, the cross hairs are aimed squarely at the offense.
At the close of the 2022 regular season, this coaching staff has serious questions to answer and major soul searching to do, because this offense cannot continue to be operated the way it was this year. Is it offensive line development? A lack of quality quarterback play? Outdated scheme? Ineffective play-calling? Poor coaching? The answer is simply a resounding “Yes”.
Will anything be done about it?
That question is still to be answered, but I fear we already know what it will be.