Tuesday, December 1, 2009
A Tentative Fiesta
The melancholy winter months ahead are looming largely over the wayward flock of Hawkeye nation this December, but snow plows and -20 degree windchill are not the primary factors that make up the black cloud hanging ever-so menacingly in the Midwest sky; I'm talking about Iowa's utterly unjust behind-the-scenes battle with Penn State for at-large BCS supremacy. As many of you may already know, both Iowa and Penn State finished the 2009 college football regular season with a record of 10-2, tied for 2nd in the Big Ten conference. Iowa, however, owns the head-to-head matchup, beating Penn State in Happy Valley back on Sept. 26, 21-10, in one of the most thrilling Hawkeye victories of the past decade.
Ignoring common sense and the contrite values of on-field competition, the money-grubbing, attention-starved BCS head honchos are actually deliberating which of these two Big Ten schools to select for an at-large birth in their end of season fashion show that annually crowns the best team in the country. It's a system based entirely on historical prestige, name value, butts in seats, eyes glued to television screens, and the false premise of "tradition." It's never been a system that has inspired me to leap from my comfortable perch and riot, as the end of year bowl bonanza has always been "the way it is" since I started really paying attention to the sport at the beginning of the decade.
But Iowa's last BCS berth came in 2002, after an 8-0 conference run and Big Ten championship, so there was no controversy surrounding the prize that awaited the black and gold that season. This year, with uncertainty clouding the glorious goal at stake, I've been nervously chomping my finger nails and sweating buckets since Iowa's 12-0 defensive plastering of Minnesota on Nov. 21st, hoping and praying that my Hawks are one of the elite few chosen at the end of the year to receive the hefty monetary reward, flood of blue-chip recruits, television exposure, and last, but certainly not least, the fantastic competition that comes with a BCS bowl game. Maybe now that Jim Delaney, Big Ten commissioner and proponent of the BCS due to the stubborn, backwards-thinking greed of the Rose Bowl, might re-think his unabashed support for the system now that one of the teams from his own conference is attempting to crash the at-large party.
Both teams assuredly have their respective arguments. Iowa, of course, beat the Nittany Lions at their home stadium, and played on national TV almost every week this season. The Hawks has a notoriously large fanbase in Arizona, a sort of haven for the retired (folks undoubtedly worn down by a lifetime of winter) and the location of the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, the probable destination of the Big Ten at-large selection. Iowa fans always travel well and fill up the bowl stadiums (jumping Northwestern for an Outback bowl bid last year), and they've never been to the Fiesta, adding intrigue and new blood to the system. Penn State, on the other hand, is an undisputed national program, with fans scattered across the country and a wide-spanning history of undefeated tradition and national championships. Their coach, the venerated Joe Paterno, has been the head man for the Nittany Lions since the late '50s, and is perhaps the face of college football with his recognizably curmudgeon-ish disposition, ancient tenure, and famous horn rimmed glasses. Penn State has finished the 2009 season in scintillating fashion, thumping Michigan State in the season finale, while Iowa stumbled towards the climax in winning only one of its last three games after starting 9-0, due mainly to QB Ricky Stanzi's devastating ankle injury. But Stanzi, along with a host of other walking wounded, will return for the bowl game, wherever that may be.
In conclusion, it really all comes down to the fact that Iowa beat Penn State in a football game. Football games are played to win, and never should anything BUT winning decide the outcome or a team's success. Grouchy pragmatists may point to Kansas jumping Missouri for an Orange Bowl berth in 2007 as a sign of things to come for disillusioned Hawks. Missouri beat Kansas in the regular season, and the Tigers were Big 12 North champs. But two losses to Oklahoma, one in the regular season and the other in the Big 12 championship, left a corrosive stain on Mizzou's record, and 1-loss Kansas jumped the Tigers for a BCS berth. The Iowa-Penn State situation is different, however, because both teams have the same record, so that example is flawed. BCS, do the right thing, and put the Hawks in your bowl game, wherever that might be. The general consensus is that bowl game will be the Fiesta, against everybody's favorite blue and oranges barons of the trick play, the upset-minded Boise State Broncos, still riding the wave of momentum from their Fiesta bowl upset of Adrian Peterson's Oklahoma Sooners on an overtime Statue of Liberty play. Both of ESPN's resident bowl projection experts, Bruce Feldman and Mark Schlabach, have finally reached a consensus, placing Iowa in the Fiesta, but it's going to take an official announcement to assuage my raging fears. Other options include Miami's Orange Bowl, against the ACC champ (pulverizing Georgia Tech or up-and-down Clemson), or, if we do make the dreaded plunge into the ranks of "regular" New Year's Day bowls, the Capital One Bowl in Orlando, Florida, site of perhaps the most memorable Hawkeye play of all time. The sweet taste of a 10-2 season, with the possibility of 11 wins, is still digesting, but it would go down the pipes a whole lot smoother with the sterling stamp of a BCS bowl game emblazoned on the resume. After a season such as this one, anything less just wouldn't do justice to all of the good fortune and craziness.
Next, I'll do a mini-season wrap up, with my own take on the best players, games, and moments of an incredible season.
Best Offensive Player: WR Marvin McNutt (RS-Sophomore) -- Whether due to inconsistency on the offensive line, injuries to their top 3 running backs, or Ricky Stanzi's patented pick-sixes, the 2009 Iowa Hawkeyes fielded an offense that was far from stable. They showed flashes of their potential, like the 28-point outburst in the 4th quarter of the Indiana game or consecutive long-ball touchdowns against Arkansas State, but achieving a steady rhythm was an elusive task for such an injury-plagued unit. Iowa fans never really knew what they were going to see on the field offensively any given Saturday, adding not only to the excitement of close, defensive-minded games, but the heart attack risk for overweight bearers of the black and gold. I'm giving this award to one of my new favorite players of the season, he of the endlessly manipulated last moniker, flypaper hands, and big play potential: former third-string QB and St. Louis native Marvin McNutt. Coming into the season, most fans saw McNutt's placement as number 1 on the depth chart as a fluke, a motivational ploy to get Derrell Johnson-Koulianous, the teams' established star at wideout, to put forth a bit more effort in practice. After all, the guy was a converted QB still learning the ins-and-outs of running routes, and could not have been ready for such a big role.
But McNutt quickly showed that he deserved a lasting spot in the starting lineup, becoming our most consistent threat for the first half of the season as DJK "got with the program," and then settling into the role of the Hawks' most incendiary deep threat. While DJK garnered more receptions and yards, McNutt still managed to put up 653 yards with a stunning 21.3 average yards per reception, nabbing 9 TDs to DJK's 2. His highlights included two touchdowns against Arkansas State, the 92-yard touchdown that ignited Kinnick Stadium against Indiana, his 2 stellar TD grabs against Ohio State at the Horseshoe, and finally, the iconic last-play touchdown catch to beat Michigan State in East Lansing and go 8-0 for the first time in program history. What's even more impressive about that play is that a fade route was originally called in the huddle, but McNutt, seeing that he could beat his man to the inside, persuaded Ken O'Keefe to change the call. The rest is history. McNutt's emergence is one of the best stories of the season, and the fact that he didn't make ANY of the All-Big Ten lists is incredibly stupid and inane. Honorable mention for this award could go to Stanzi, who ignored the haters and calmly won ball games with clutch savvy and nonchalant resiliency. Also, Adam Robinson was a fearsome sparkplug at running back until a stifling ankle injury ended his run at Michigan State, while offensive lineman Dace Richardson was a rock at right guard until yet ANOTHER ankle injury sidelined him for the season.
More awards to follow in the coming days...