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Forever Rodney Dangerfield

BY SCOTT MILLER | NOVEMBER 06, 2009 7:20 AM

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The Iowa Hawkeyes have been called a fraud. They’ve been dubbed the worst 7-0 team in the history of the Big Ten — and presumably now, the worst 9-0 team in the history of, well, the world. They’ve elicited comments from sportswriters such as The Oklahoman’s Jenni Carlson, who said, “I can’t for the life of me figure out how they’re still undefeated.”

Their schedule has been ripped by ESPN Radio personality Colin Cowherd, even though it ranks as the seventh-toughest in the country and features opponents with a combined 44-31 record.

Their 18-point win over Indiana on Oct. 31 has been scrutinized by former NFL quarterback and current Fox Sports analyst Terry Bradshaw, who said, “[The Hawkeyes] ought to be ashamed of themselves, because Indiana is not that good.”

Their 9-0 start has been chalked up as part luck and part talent by ESPN.com’s Ivan Maisel.

Indeed, to call the Iowa Hawkeyes (No. 8 in the AP poll; No. 4 in the BCS) the most under-appreciated, overly mocked team in the top 10 is a gross understatement.

This is the world head coach Kirk Ferentz lives in these days. It’s a world in which his team was the underdog against Wisconsin and Michigan State on back-to-back weekends when they sat in the top 11. It’s a world in which his team is having the best season in school history but is bogged down with concerns about style points and margin of victory. It’s a world in which his team keeps winning, but winning is simply not enough.

“It makes it fun,” Ferentz said.

Senior linebacker Pat Angerer said, “It doesn’t really matter what other people think. We believe in each other.”

When the national pundits scoff at the idea of Iowa being mentioned among the like of Florida, Texas, and Alabama, the first thing they point to is the team’s near slip-ups against subpar opponents.

The Hawkeyes’ one-point escape from Football Championship Subdivision representative Northern Iowa in the season-opener — after two consecutive last-second blocked field goals, no less — didn’t help their cause. Neither did their three-point home victory over Arkansas State on Oct. 3.

While Florida was blowing out its first two opponents by a combined 109 points and Texas was putting up 64 points against UTEP on Sept. 26, Iowa was happily living on the edge. In fact, the team’s second-largest margin of victory (18 points) came on the same day it faced its largest deficit of the season (14 points) against Indiana.

“Obviously, we’re not winning in the best style ever,” junior left tackle Bryan Bulaga said. “We’re not winning 42-0 or blowouts or anything like that like some of these other teams. So people are going to take shots at us, but I don’t think anyone can really look past how resilient of a team we are.”

Down 10 points early on the road at Penn State, Iowa scored 21 unanswered points to silence 110,000 white-clad Nittany Lion fans. Facing another early 10-point deficit at Wisconsin and getting abused by Badger running back John Clay, the Hawkeyes put up 20-consecutive points to leave Madison with a victory.

Ninety-seven seconds remaining, 70 yards in front of him, and a 13-9 disadvantage on the scoreboard, junior quarterback Ricky Stanzi calmly drove his offense down the field against Michigan State to win, 15-13.

This past weekend against Indiana was the same story: another deficit, another comeback, another win that just wasn’t enough to prove the Hawkeyes belonged in the BCS’ top five.

“The fact that people still kind of don’t believe in you gives you that extra fire,” sophomore wide receiver Marvin McNutt said.

In the past, Ferentz has affectionately described his recruiting classes as full of nobodies. On this current team, nearly just as many starters came onto campus as two-star recruits or walk-ons (six) as four-star recruits (seven).

The other 11 starters — such as Stanzi, Angerer, safety Tyler Sash, and wide receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos — started their careers as three-star prospects. Neither Stanzi nor Johnson-Koulianos, both of whom from Ohio, were offered scholarships by their home state Buckeyes.

The point is that most of the current starters began their college careers as little more than afterthoughts. Now, a few years after signing their letters of intent, this group is at the center of a team that the national media can’t help but slight.

“Including me, none of us have been first choices,” Ferentz said. “It makes it fun. It’s fun to overcome odds, I think. I think our guys embrace that. No matter where we are ranked, we are still climbing uphill, and that is our team.”

Junior guard Julian Vandervelde, who was also one those three-star prospects, said, “I think we do like [being the underdog] to a certain extent. When you feel like you’re not getting the respect that you deserve, it jump-starts you.”

When the critics aren’t busy knocking the Hawkeyes’ lack of blue-chip talent, they can’t help but bring up the apparent amount of good fortune the team has enjoyed.

The two blocked field goals against Northern Iowa? Fluke. The key personal foul penalty against Michigan State’s Jeremy Ware that kept a key fourth-quarter drive alive? Luck. Two questionable touchdown passes by Indiana that were ruled incomplete by rule officials? Benefit of the doubt.

Ferentz acknowledged that “good teams are lucky,” but Stanzi wasn’t too sure what role luck has played in the team’s 9-0 start.

“I don’t know much about luck,” he said. “I don’t even know what you categorize luck as. If luck is Adrian Clayborn blocking a punt [against Penn State], then that doesn’t make sense to me.”

Luck or no luck, close wins or no close wins, fraud or no fraud, the Hawkeyes seemingly can’t escape the criticism of the national media. They’re too slow, lack too much talent, and win with far too little flair.

They’re not sexy or flashy or athletically overwhelming. They’re certainly not true national-title contenders — just ask anyone on talk radio or national television. But they are 9-0 — something that Ferentz keeps having to remind people.

“People can think whatever they want,” the head coach said after his team’s 42-24 win over Indiana. “We’ve got nine [wins]. I know we don’t have to give any of them back. I know that. But I can understand why people think that. I can understand that. That’s OK.”

When asked if he plans on continuing to use that as motivation, Ferentz responded with a chuckle:

“We might try to.”


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