Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Granddaddy of Them All

Imagine waking up from a dream, as vivid and realistic as dreams can be. Every aspect of the dream is going in your favor, and you are in utter shock. This kind of happiness does not occur in reality, and you are blissfully lost in the ignorant joys of the present, never thinking one action in advance of the next.

Then, the dream abruptly ends, your head bashes against the bed board, you realize class starts in 15 minutes, and all of the pleasures granted by that slumbering fantasy suddenly disappear, a night's worth of riches sapped away in one crushing counter-punch.

This is how Hawkeye Nation felt after last Saturday's 17-10 demoralization at the hands of the Northwestern Wildcats on a beautiful, 72-degree day inside the swollen red brick confines of Kinnick Stadium, stacked with sweltering hoards of black and gold faithful oozing into stadium aisles and desperately cheering for this destiny-fueled season to continue riding the train of disbelief, leaving fans' mouths agape week after week with stunning comebacks, stifling defense, and Stanzi's savvy in the clutch.

Throughout Iowa's dreadfully prehistoric 2nd half performance, when 3-and-outs became as common as Dominique Douglas arrest warrants, the fans still managed to keep their dream alive without ever batting an eyelid. They had been through this routine before. Trailing in their 9th game out of 10 on the season? No problem. This is the same Hawkeye outfit that needed to block two field goals in the final 7 seconds to beat Northern Iowa, recover an onside kick to wax Arkansas State off the board, return a punt block for a touchdown in the pouring rain to squelch Penn State in Happy Valley, score an improbable touchdown as time expired to beat Michigan State on the road for the first time since 1995, pile on 28 4th quarter points to bury Indiana, and -- I think you get the picture by now.

This team embodies resiliency, and nobody is a greater beacon for resiliency then QB Ricky Stanzi, whose Jekyll and Hyde performances have drawn both ire and quasi-worship from deranged Hawk fans all season long. Stanzi has thrown more pick-sixes this year then most QBs would care to remember, and nearly as many interceptions (14) as touchdowns (15). Yet, when the 4th quarter begins, and the sky starts to dim, Stanzi straps his gloves on and goes to work. No game typifies that kind of nonchalant swagger and unprecedented poise more so then the Indiana contest on Halloween day. Stanzi played the most miserable 3 quarters of his life, tossing 4 picks in the 3rd quarter and 5 in all, repeatedly chucking the pigskin right into a ferocious gust of wind. Iowa fans, being the fickle farmers that they are, began calling for Stanzi's head, demanding that backup James Vandenberg be thrust in the game right this very moment.

Good thing Coach Kirk Ferentz kept his lid screwed on tight. Stanzi responded to the incessant chorus of jeers and boos with a scintillating 4th quarter, throwing for 177 yards and completing all of his passes, including two orgasmic touchdowns to fan favorites Marvin McNutt (the puns are endless) and DJK, he of the cursed Sports Illustrated cover that I will no longer mention again even though it's really cool and it's pinned up in my dorm room.

So, how does this all connect to Northwestern, and Iowa's impending date with "The" Ohio State university this weekend in a de facto Big Ten championship game for a berth in the Rose Bowl? Well, imagine that dream not only transitioning to reality, but dying right there on the Kinnick turf, something unholy and unforseen tainting the Saturday morning purity and silencing the rabid throng of Iowa supporters who had been generating deafening noise just minutes before. After an unabashedly boneheaded naked bootleg call by Ken O'Keefe with the ball on the 5, Stanzi was sacked by Northwestern's Corey Wooton, fumbling the ball and leading to NW's first TD of the day. But the image that followed was much more gruesome. Stanzi lying there in the endzone, an awkward, crumpled heap. His ankle was a twisted mess, a high sprain they'd call it, sidelining our hero for the rest of the regular season. Once the shock subsided, and the fans recovered from the sight of this season's most polarizing figure limping pathetically into the locker room, one question remained --and it was not "Where did Ashton Kutcher go?" Could James Vandenberg live up to his high school glory, and somehow get the Hawkeyes to 10-0?

The immediate answer to that question was a resounding no, as Vandenberg's first pass attempt was intercepted and the rest of them rarely successful, as the grossly underprepared RS-freshman bumbled his way through a nervous 9-27, 86 yard performance, only once venturing past the 50 yard line through almost three quarters of play. The loss could not be placed solely on Vandenberg's play, though most fans would confidently state that had Stanzi not been knocked out of the game, the Hawkeyes would have won. Vandenberg came into the NW game with 3 career passing attempts, and could not have known that he would be tossled headfirst into such a desperate situation, with "undefeated" and "national title" ringing in his youthful ears. Needless to say, the Iowa offense died with Stanzi's ankle that day, and the Wildcats' scrappy outfit of overachievers (hey, that's supposed to be us) made enough plays on both offense and defense to steal another heart-wrenching game from the Iowa Hawkeyes.

It took more then the standard 24-hours for Hawkeye fans to flush this disappointing turd of a game down the toilet, and the reasons mounted like Hawkeye bodies in the training room. It was devastating to lose Stanzi. It has been a season where the injuries have piled up in sickening numbers, with running backs, offensive linemen, and wide receivers dropping from the ranks with everything from torn tendons to confounding concussions, but Stanzi was the one player the Hawkeyes could not afford to lose, could not overcome. He's the rare talent that always gives your team a chance to win, despite his penchant for throwing the patented "Stanzi-ball" directly into the chest of the opposing team. Can we win another game without number 12? Number 2 on the list of disappointments was the fact that it was frickin' Northwestern, the pretentious, intellectual, purple-clad, 10,000 people per home game skid mark of the Big Ten conference. Now, realize I am being overly harsh for comedic purposes, as the Wildcats have brandished a respectable program since 1995 and severely own the Kirk Ferentz-lead Hawkeyes, but come on, really? Northwestern? Yes, Northwestern, the same Northwestern that has beaten Iowa 3 out of the last 4 trips to Kinnick and whose fanbase has taken to calling our glorious stadium "Ryan Field West." Oh really, is that why every time Iowa plays you guys we have like 10 times the fucking fans you do at your own stadium?

Sorry, but you can envision how this affects me. It's just hard to register that Jake Christensen is the last Iowa QB to beat the Wildcats (coincidence that he was in attendance? I think not). But most Hawkeye fans would acknowledge that were our admittedly narrow national championship dreams to die, it would have been much easier to swallow at Ohio State. But not Northwestern. Not Northwestern.

Lastly, the disappointment culminated in the sharp reality that what has been a historic dream season, reaching 8-0 and then 9-0 for the first time in the wide arc of our storied program, may end in something other then a Big Ten title or BCS berth. From McNutt's last second grab in East Lansing to Tyler Sash's laughable pinball interception return against Indiana, this has been a season that embraces the bizarre, glorifies the lucky, and most importantly, offers a tantalizing peak at destiny. Before the season, 9-0 seemed like quite the stretch with such a daunting road schedule, but as the leaves morphed to orange and the year grew older, fans began to imagine a world where the words "Iowa Hawkeyes-National Champions" didn't sound so far-fetched. With a brutal road trip to Ohio State looming, this was not the time to lose a home game to Northwestern.

Which segways into this weekend's pristine contest at The 'Shoe, one of America's storied venues and arguably the toughest place to play at in the Big Ten. 100,000 scarlet and grey clad Buckeye fans, like bloodthirsty spectators at a gladiator match, will be shouting in unison for their beloved defense to jettison our new baby-faced gunslinger to the brisk turf, pasted into another Buckeye Big Ten title montage along with the countless others that have come before. Young James Vandenberg will be getting his first start on the road in Columbus, and nobody will be giving him a shot. Though we are ranked one spot ahead of Ohio State at number 10 in the BCS, the talking heads and loudmouth ESPN pundits will be giving us less of a shot to win then John Wooden to beat Lance Armstrong in a bicycle race. The nation will be against us. But adversity is this Iowa team's best friend, and I don't see any reason why this special Hawkeye team has to stop embracing it. Matter of fact, I'm going to close this post with three reasons why Iowa will win right here.

Reason #1) Terrelle Pryor. The much-ballyhooed Buckeye signal caller may have emerged from high school with Vince Young-level hype and attention, but the talented sophomore's passing skills this season have left much to be desired. Though he's shown flashes of star potential, what with such a deadly mix of size and athleticism, don't confuse OSU wins with Pryor success. This Ohio State defense is what has made this team 8-2. Here are Pryor's 2009 passing statistics, courtesy of ESPN. You be the judge.

9/5 Navy W 31-27 14 21 174 66.7 38 1 1 142.46 6 30 5.0 11 1
9/12 USC L 18-15 11 25 177 44.0 56 0 1 95.47 10 36 3.6 17 0
9/19 @Toledo W 38-0 17 28 262 60.7 76 3 2 160.38 12 110 9.2 43 1
9/26 Illinois W 30-0 8 13 82 61.5 19 1 0 139.91 11 59 5.4 23 0
10/3 @Indiana W 33-14 17 28 166 60.7 23 3 1 138.73 16 63 3.9 18 1
10/10 Wisconsin W 31-13 5 13 87 38.5 32 1 1 104.68 10 35 3.5 27 0
10/17 @Purdue L 26-18 17 31 221 54.8 40 1 2 112.46 21 34 1.6 35 1
10/24 Minnesota W 38-7 13 25 239 52.0 62 2 1 150.70 15 104 6.9 19 1
10/31 New Mexico State W 45-0 11 23 135 47.8 43 1 0 111.48 9 83 9.2 27 1
11/7 @Penn State W 24-7 8 17 125 47.1 62 2 0 147.65 5 50 10.0 24 1

Reason #2) James Vandenberg. One's first reaction, a very understandable one at that, would be confusion and perhaps disgust. But I'm talking about Vandenberg the high school QB. I realize that Kirk Ferentz once proclaimed the everlasting truth that "what a kid does in high school amounts to what the kid did in high school," Vandenberg's crazy good statistics should be enough to get Hawkeye fans salivating over what he can do. Don't be fooled by the skittish young colt we all witnessed on Saturday. Vandenberg (the Mandenberg) holds 12 state of Iowa passing records, including career passing yards (7,709), career TD passes (93), and single-season passing yards from his senior year at Keokuk (3,729). The fact that he is capable of putting up these numbers shouldn't assuage Hawk fans' fears, but it gives us hope, and proves that the QB we saw last Saturday will not be the QB we see for the next 3 years here in Iowa City. Enough said.

Reason #3) The Hawkeye defense. This one is kind of a given folks, and it goes hand-in-hand with numero uno. Our conservative Cover-2 schemes are begging for opposing QB's to get overly comfortable with the short stuff and make mistakes. Pryor's nonchalant throwing, if you can even call it that, of the pigskin should lead to a few easy INTs for the boys in the secondary, most notably pickmeister Tyler Sash, who has 6 on the year. Look for Adrian Clayborn to disrupt the pocket and force Pryor to make plays with his legs, which he is capable of, but after a few staunch shots from our dreadlocked monster up front, I don't think he will be feeling too comfortable. Also watch out for Pat Angerer in the MLB spot. He's coming in, for lack of better word, juiced up. Playing for a Big Ten title, Angerer, the emotional leader of this defense, will have this unit's intensity exploding through the walls of Ohio Stadium. Look for him to make plays from sideline-to-sideline, shutting down "Boom" Herron and the OSU running attack while keeping a sterling eye on Pryor's every movement as well. The Hawks also need the defense to force a multitude of turnovers, something they've been relying on all season. Unfortunately, that aspect of Iowa's game has faded in recent weeks, but Vandenberg needs some good field position if Iowa is to put up enough points to win.

Final Score: Iowa-17 Ohio State-3.

So Hawkeye fans, don't stop believing in this magical season, because we've been living on a prayer since Day 1, and all we really want is for tonight to be a good night, right?

This one is for you, Hawkeye Nation. On Iowa, and Go Hawks!