Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Best case-worst case: Iowa
By ESPN.com staff
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
The third installment in a series examining the best and worst outcomes, within reason, for each Big Ten squad.
The Hawkeyes pave the road in black and gold, the defensive line holds together and "Stanzi is the Manzi" T-shirts are worn all across the state.
No Shonn Greene? No problem for Iowa, which continues its momentum from 2008. Junior quarterback Ricky Stanzi blossoms after a season of trial-and-error, and running backs Jewel Hampton and Jeff Brinson find plenty of daylight behind the Big Ten's best offensive line. Wide receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos gets the message after his depth-chart demotion and earns All-Big Ten honors. The defense misses tackles Mitch King and Matt Kroul, but an improved pass rush combined with more playmaking from linebacker Pat Angerer, safety Tyler Sash, cornerback Amari Spievey and others more than makes up for it.
The Hawkeyes easily handle Northern Iowa in the opener before heading to a place they hate -- Jack Trice Stadium. Wins are never easy in Ames, but Stanzi steps up and delivers big as the visitors roll 31-7. Iowa then ruins Mike Stoops' homecoming and takes care of Arizona, setting up the matchup the two most vocal fan bases on this blog have waited for -- Sept. 26 at Penn State. The sight of 185-pound kicker Daniel Murray makes Penn State fans tremble, and Iowa doesn't flinch in front of the "Whiteout" crowd, upsetting the Nittany Lions by a touchdown. The Big Ten blog server crashes after being flooded with celebratory Hawkeye fans.
Stanzi makes sure the team avoids a letdown against Arkansas State, and the defense shuts out Michigan as Adrian Clayborn introduces himself to the Wolverines' quarterbacks. Iowa splits its next two road games, against Michigan State and Wisconsin, before posting another shutout against Indiana on Halloween. Now ranked in the top 15, Iowa overcomes its recent demons against Northwestern as Angerer knocks one of the Wildcats' running backs from the game in a convincing win.
Can't see Iowa winning in Columbus, but the team finishes with a very respectable 3-2 road record. To celebrate, the Hawkeyes beat Minnesota 55-0 for the second straight year. At 10-2, Iowa heads back to Florida for the Capital One Bowl and Stanzi does his best Drew Tate impression, throwing the game-winning touchdown pass against LSU. The Hawkeyes finish No. 8 nationally, left tackle Bryan Bulaga returns for his senior season
and NFL teams leave head coach Kirk Ferentz alone for a change.
Iowa is left seeing red without Greene, Stanzi records double digits in picks and the run defense crumbles without King and Kroul.
Hampton's knee never fully heals, and the offensive line doesn't jell without several key pieces early in the season. The Hawkeyes are forced into third-and-long situations, and Stanzi continues to take the risks that plagued him at times last season. There's friction with DJK and converted quarterback Marvin McNutt struggles to be a No. 1 wideout. Opponents quickly spot the holes in Iowa's defense, and the young tackles pegged to replace King and Kroul inside simply aren't up to the task. The secondary struggles to replicate its playmaking prowess from 2008, and Iowa's bad habits in close games resurface. Injuries crop up on both sides of the ball, and the program gets more bad press for off-field issues.
The season begins with a too-close-for-comfort win against Northern Iowa, a strong FCS program. Then disaster strikes once again in Ames, as a horrible Iowa State team upsets the Hawkeyes 10-9 in a rainstorm. It marks Iowa's fifth loss in its last six trips to Jack Trice Stadium. After squeaking by Arizona, Iowa heads to Happy Valley and pays the price for last year's upset at Kinnick Stadium. Penn State rolls the Hawkeyes by 20 points, giving Nittany Nation bragging rights on the Big Ten blog.
After pounding Arkansas State, the Hawkeyes survive a scare against Michigan. The team hits the road again and struggles, as Bret Bielema gets revenge for last year's drubbing and Michigan State wins another close one in East Lansing. Iowa recovers against Indiana but drops its third consecutive home game to Northwestern. Needing to split its final two games to make the postseason, Iowa can't keep pace with Ohio State. A bowl-bound Minnesota team then comes to Kinnick Stadium and rolls to a win, as wideout Eric Decker hauls in four touchdowns and two Gophers fans are arrested doing naughty things in a bathroom.
The 5-7 clunker raises doubts about Ferentz's leadership, Bulaga and Spievey bolt for the NFL and the program wastes the momentum it generated last fall.