I really don't know how I'm supposed to feel about this game. Am I mad? Not really. Am I sad? Yes. Am I frustrated? Yes. Am I also encouraged? ...yes. Look, I don't like moral victories. Moral victories haven't had any value for this program since probably the 2000 season. Nor do I like losing. Iowa lost to Ohio State today -- that sucks. That definitely, undeniably sucks. And, yes, losing a game where you're competitive for three or so quarters is no more and no less a loss than a game where you get trounced by 30 points. A loss is a loss is a loss.
But... I'd rather see a team that was competitive, but came up short. I'd rather see a team that had chances to win, even if it couldn't capitalize on those opportunities. I'd rather see a team that actually appears to be progressing and improving. I'd rather see a team that gives me reason to think that the future might not be an endless string of mind-numbing losses and inept play.
The brightest spot out of Saturday's loss was the play of the offense. Two weeks ago, outside of two quick-strike scoring drives, Iowa's offense looked every bit as hapless and ineffective as it did during the darkest days of the 2012 season. We spent two weeks wondering how much of that was due to some inherent frailties of the offense and how much of it was due to the fact that they were playing a very-excellent Michigan State defense. We'll wait to pass more substantive judgment on the offense until a few more games have passed, but... this was certainly encouraging and definitely suggested that the problems we saw two weeks ago might have been mostly attributable to the MSU defense.
Iowa's offense was very good in the first half; Rudock threw for 121 yards and 2 TDs and the running game combined for 101 yards. They sustained three long drives that all ended in points (a 12-play drive ended in a passing TD, a 15-play drive ended in a another passing TD, and a 9-play drive ended in a field goal). In that first half, Iowa's offense was also their best defense -- those long drives built a sizable time of possession advantage for Iowa and (more importantly) kept Braxton Miller and his cohorts off the field. Which was important because Iowa could not stop Miller, Hyde, et al.
And in a very tangible way, that's what this game seemed to come down to: Ohio State had Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde, and Iowa didn't. Nor did Iowa have players of their ilk. Sometimes great players make great plays and there's not a lot that you can do about it. Is it frustrating to watch? Absolutely. But Miller and Hyde make a lot of defenses look silly; Iowa's certainly not unique in that regard. Iowa needed to force Miller into mistakes; they couldn't. They needed to capitalize off errors by the OSU offense; there weren't many. After getting burned badly by a coverage breakdown in the first quarter, the defense did a solid job of preventing the big play the rest of the game. The trade-off was that they allowed a lot of plays underneath and Ohio State was more than happy to gobble up yards in 6-, 8-, 10-yard chunks, methodically moving down the field before putting the ball in the end zone. I'm not sure what the answer is there; if Iowa adapts a more aggressive approach on defense, there's a very good chance that Miller burns them with big plays. Of course, you could certainly argue that they should have at least tried it, given that the alternative just led to a lot of clock-sucking drives.
Ultimately, this loss doesn't really change the calculus for the rest of Iowa's season. We had this penciled in as a loss before the season began and we still had it as a loss a few games into the season. And, lo and behold, Iowa lost this game. Again, that was not a surprising result. Iowa still has five more games on the schedule this season and opportunities to win all of them; this loss doesn't change that. The good news is that it wasn't a confidence-sapping rout and it didn't seem to feature several significant injuries (Bullock, Fiedorowicz, and Hitchens all left the field, but I believe all three also returned after the injuries; whether they should have returned or not is another matter).
A few other thoughts:
- Jake freaking Duzey! What a game he had. 6 catches, 138 yards, and one amazing 85-yard TD catch-and-run. He looks like a tremendous potential match-up nightmare for opposing defenses; his speed makes it tough for opposing defensive backs to cover him, let alone linebackers. Here's to hoping this is just the beginning of big things for him at Iowa.
- Nor was Duzey the only tight end who had a good day: C.J. Fiedorowicz had 4 catches for 29 yards, including the game-opening touchdown. (Again: GOOD THINGS HAPPEN WHEN YOU THROW TO CJ IN THE RED ZONE. KEEP DOING IT.) George Kittle added another catch for 24 yards as well. Iowa used a lot of 3 TE sets on offense and they seemed to be extremely productive, in both the running and passing games. I think we'll see more of that formation as the season continues.
- Iowa's other Jake, Rudock, had another pretty strong outing on the road, this time in one of the toughest places to play in the Big Ten. Things went a little sideways in the second half, when Iowa wasn't able to sustain much of anything on offense, and especially at the end, when he threw one interception and was very lucky not to have thrown a pick-six minutes earlier. But I thought he still played well for the most part; in the first half, the did a very good job of directing the offense and keeping drives ticking along. He didn't seem too rattled by the environment or by the opponent, which was impressive. Again, there's no question that he needs to work on things (staring down receivers became a problem in the second half and he struggled once Ohio State was able to ratchet up the pressure on him), but those are fixable problems.
- Iowa's offensive line had a much better day this week than they did against Michigan State. They tapered off in the second half, when they weren't able to sustain drives (which was especially crippling for Iowa since the defense struggled so much to get off the field and put the ball back in the offense's hands) and let Ohio State get more pressure on Rudock, but overall the offensive line play was much more encouraging. They did a great job of blocking for the running game in the first half (Weisman and Bullock both had tremendous holes to rush through) and keeping the pass rush away from Rudock. Ohio State's defense isn't as strong as Michigan's State defense, but it's not bad, either, especially against the run. The fact that Iowa was able to have as much success against them as they did certainly gives me more hope for the rest of the season.
- For once, Iowa didn't have a catastrophic special teams blunder! Baby steps, people, baby steps.
- And, yes, I should probably mention the holding calls -- or, rather, the uncalled holding calls. There sure seemed to be a lot of them, especially when Ohio State was on offense. That sucked. The officiating most definitely could have been better. I don't think the officiating was the main reason Iowa lost this game, though, so I don't want to dwell on it any further.