Iowa, we're on to you
Hawkeyes too good to hoodwink nation once again
Posted: Wednesday August 3, 2005 10:26AM; Updated: Wednesday August 3, 2005 12:40PM
CHICAGO -- For three straight seasons, the Iowa Hawkeyes have won at least 10 games and finished in the top 10 of the final polls, each time after the preseason pollsters declared, in a nutshell, "There's no way can they do it again."
Various preview magazines and Web sites (including this one), apparently tired of being duped, have definitively declared the 2005 Hawkeyes to be a preseason top 10 team, in many cases ranking them ahead of Big Ten stalwarts Ohio State and/or Michigan (against whom Iowa has gone 3-2 and shared two of the past three league titles). Hawkeyes receiver Ed Hinkel is a tad perplexed about the timing of such predictions. "If anything, we should probably be lower than we have been in the past," the fifth-year senior said Tuesday at Big Ten media days. "I don't think we're as far ahead now as we've been in the past."
Nice try, Ed, but you're not going to be pulling another fast one on us this year. Four new starters on the defensive line, two of whom have to replace All-Americans Matt Roth and Jonathan Babineaux? No proven running back? Injuries and inexperience at safety? Boo hoo. After watching Iowa go 10-2 last season despite losing two of its first four games, including an embarrassing 44-7 blowout at Arizona State, and despite losing a staggering four running backs to season-ending injuries and finishing 116th (out of 117) in the country in rushing offense, it's clear by now that no hurdle is too great for a Kirk Ferentz-coached team to overcome.
In fact, each of the past three years has followed virtually the same script in Iowa City. Following a breakthrough, 11-2 season in 2002, the Hawkeyes had to replace Heisman runner-up quarterback Brad Banks, All-America tight end Dallas Clark and four starters off a powerful offensive line. What did they do in 2003? Go conservative on offense, make big plays on defense and special teams and beat Florida in the Outback Bowl to complete a 10-3 season.
Last year, same story. Seven new starters on offense, no more Robert Gallery pancaking helpless defensive linemen, no more Bob Sanders making big plays in the secondary. And that was before all the running back injuries. Yet after struggling early, Iowa managed to finish the season on an eight-game winning streak, as first-year QB Drew Tate capped an All-Big Ten season with a game-winning, 56-yard touchdown pass to beat LSU as time expired in the Capital One Bowl.
"I really don't know how we did it," Hinkel said of last year's improbable season. "One of our mottos we have posted all over our [football] complex is 'Find A Way.' That's what we did. It wasn't pretty; we weren't really a stats team. The only stat that mattered was the score at the end of the game."
Compared to this time a year ago, the Hawkeyes seem loaded. Tate, a junior who threw for 2,786 yards and 20 touchdowns last season, and who Purdue coach Joe Tiller recently labeled "the closest thing to Drew Brees since he left Purdue," marks the program's first returning starting quarterback in five years. Hinkel and Clinton Solomon, the Big Ten's top returnees in receptions, are back to join him, as are three starters from a much more experienced offensive line. And while the defensive line is green, All-America linebackers Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge are back for what seems like their 18th season, as are senior cornerbacks Jovon Johnson and Antwan Allen. Even the low-key Ferentz doesn't pretend his team won't be among the Big Ten's top contenders, though he knows, as his own team has proven recently, that nothing is certain.
"Every season has its own personality," said the seventh-year head coach and former Hayden Fry assistant. "In 2002, internally we felt very good about that team, and the way it turned out was not a total shock. The last two years were a little different, and last year may have been one for the books. It will be an interesting race, and hopefully we'll be right in it ... but certainly, a lot of things can happen between now and September, or now and November."
That Iowa is even being mentioned in the same breath now as perennial giants Ohio State and Michigan is a testament to Ferentz's acclaimed coaching abilities. Having inherited a program that had slipped from being a consistent bowl team for most of the 1980s and '90s to one that went 7-27 from 1998-2000, the Hawkeyes, at least until recently, have not been able to recruit elite players, yet Ferentz and his staff have been able to develop untapped gems like Gallery (a converted tight end who wound up winning the Outland Trophy) and Greenway (whose only other offer was to be a walk-on tight end at Nebraska) into NFL-caliber prospects and, in doing so, lessen the talent gap."Our bottom 20 to 30 [players] are not going to match up with [Ohio State's and Michigan's," said Ferentz. "We don't usually have freshman phenoms. Typically our guys get better in their last three years in the program, and typically our teams get better as the season goes on."
Such was clearly the case last season, when the Hawkeyes were a virtual disaster in September. After eeking out a 17-10 win over then-struggling rival Iowa State, Iowa went to Tempe, Ariz., and fell behind 27-0 to the Sun Devils by halftime, getting outgained 511 yards to 100 on the night. Things began to turn the next week at Michigan, however, when Tate threw for 270 yards and kept his team in the game for three quarters. Within three weeks, Iowa had evolved into a team capable of routing Ohio State 33-7.
"You saw just how good a coach [Ferentz] is by bringing us back from [the ASU debacle]. That could have completely ruined our season," said Greenway. "He has an uncanny ability to be the calmest person at the strangest times.
"He has an insane detail for fundamentals. When you're 2-2, coming off two bad losses, that's when you go back to fundamentals, back to the kickoff drill you did the third day of fall camp. He keeps us focused on the little things it takes to win."
Chances are, there will come a time again this season when Ferentz will have to go that route. With an inexperienced defensive line and a rigorous early-season schedule that includes trips to much-improved Iowa State, Ohio State and Purdue in the season's first four weeks, there will inevitably be a loss or two from which the Hawkeyes must recover, and inevitably, there will be many observers once again ready to count them out.
"We've come a long ways [the past three years], but we still have some respect to earn," said Hinkel. "That's the way we like it. We like being the underdog."
There you go again, Ed. We've already learned rule No. 1: Never count out the Hawkeyes, even after a slow start. And rule No. 2? They're never truly an underdog.
Stewart Mandel covers college sports for SI.com.
But they havent caught onto Iowa. Iowa is its won breed. Hawkeyes will be national champions!!:bling: