I've posted twice already this season on Iowa, so I figure on the heels of their make-or-break game against Ohio State today, I need to weigh in.
To begin, let me be clear with my relationship to Iowa football and this team specifically. If there is one team that I root for above all others in college sports, it is UCLA. But, I was born in Toledo, Ohio and spent a chunk of my life there, and still have some roots there. Generally speaking, if Ohio State is playing anyone but UCLA in any sport, I am rooting for Ohio State. But, for some reason I fell for this year's version of the Iowa Hawkeyes. Some combination of the uphill struggles they faced all season, with key injuries at key times all over the roster, and the way they handled those struggles put me squarely behind the Hawkeyes in the handful of times I watched them this year. And so, today, without every really making a decision that I was going to do so, I found myself rooting against the Buckeyes and for the Hawkeyes. Hard.
With junior quarterback Ricky Stanzi injured in a key play early in last week's loss to Northwestern (a play call that I severely question, even if Stanzi didn't get hurt on the play - how exactly do you call a naked rollout to the side of an All-American-type defensive end while trying to throw out of your own end zone?), the reigns of the Iowa offense fell to redshirt freshman James Vandernberg, who, frankly, looked completely unable to handle the pressure of the situation last week. How would he be able to handle it playing in the Horseshoe instead of in front of a friendly home crowd? How could he handle it playing against a strong Ohio State defense instead of a more forgiving Northwestern defense?
Add to that problem, the fact that freshman running back (about their only quality healthy back in the last two weeks) Brandon Wegher fell ill before this game and would be held out the entire game, leaving the rushing load to fall to redshirt freshman Adam Robinson, just back from an ankle injury that had held him out of the previous two weeks. The Hawkeyes didn't figure to have a chance.
And, yet, they hung in there. Robinson gutted out a strong performance and kept the Ohio State defense from being able to pin their ears back and attack the quarterback. Vandenberg played well beyond his years and experience (despite a couple INTs), and were it not for a few dropped balls, may have led his squad to a win and a Rose Bowl bid. In fact, some time around the 5:03 mark of the 4th quarter, when Vanderberg threw one of his few mistakes of the game, a duck into double coverage that was somehow tipped up and brought down by senior tight end Tony Moeaki, it seemed like Iowa might be destined to win this game.
However, Ohio State's defense was able to regain control in the overtime period, holding Iowa without a score on their possession, and an Ohio State field goal clinched the win and the BCS bowl spot.
And yet, when I look back on this college football season, the Iowa Hawkeyes will be one of my earliest and favorite memories. They overcame key injuries from the start of training camp through November games. They made the most of a somewhat limited roster, getting huge contributions from freshmen like Vandenberg, Robinson, Wegher, and guard Riley Reiff all the way up to seniors like Tony Moeaki, Pat Angerer and Dace Richardson.
While there are a couple of guys who could potentially flirt with leaving early for the NFL draft (Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, Adrian Clayborn and Amari Spievey), there will be enough talent and experience on this team to once again make a run at the Big Ten title next season. And, maybe next season, they won't have to fight the injury bug quite so much.
Hats off to the 2009 Iowa Hawkeyes, quite frankly, a far more enjoyable team to root for than perennial overdog and unimaginative Ohio State.