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Iowa seeks Rose Bowl berth

BY JON LINDER | NOVEMBER 13, 2009 7:20 AM

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Few scenarios in sports can compare with what James Vandenberg will experience when he takes the field for Iowa on Saturday in Ohio Stadium.

Never mind this will be the first start of his career, which will take place in one of the toughest arenas to perform in all of college football. Vandenberg now leads the Hawkeyes into a situation that is — in a word — rare.

“Yeah, it’s a big step,” he said. “There’s stuff on the line, and it’s a great environment to play in, and [the Buckeyes are] a good team. But we look forward to the challenge.”

Iowa enters this weekend’s matchup with Ohio State as the No. 15 team in the country, according to the Associated Press, while clinging to a No. 10 BCS slot. That aspect alone was almost inconceivable for Hawkeye fans entering this season.

Iowa had lost its top two rushers from 2008 in consensus All-American Shonn Greene and standout then-sophomore-to-be Jewel Hampton. Defensive mainstays Mitch King and Matt Kroul needed to be replaced on the defensive line.

The schedule also featured a seemingly impossible slate of road games.

A middle-of-the-pack finish in the conference and an eight-win season looked like the ceiling for Kirk Ferentz and his squad.

Now, after 10 weeks of a circus-like college football season in Iowa City, the Hawkeyes still find themselves in control of their own conference destiny.

Barely.

It took two-consecutive field goal blocks, an electric punt block and return, and an almost unprecedented number of come-from-behind wins, but Iowa somehow found itself as the favorites in the Big Ten entering November.

Anyone familiar with the Iowa program knows such an instance is a rare occurrence.

However, the magic leaked out of Kinnick Stadium on Nov. 7, when Northwestern smacked Iowa back to reality with a resounding thud.

Suddenly, the euphoria surrounding the team had faded to a dull glimmer as junior Ricky Stanzi, as resilient a quarterback as they come, lay writhing in pain in his own end zone, clutching a now famously sprained ankle.

“I mean [the loss] hurt. It hurt bad, but it’s over with, and it’s not really going to help us too much thinking about it right now,” senior linebacker Pat Angerer said on Tuesday. “All we can do right now is fight.”

Iowa buckled under adversity for the first time against the Wildcats, and the team was subsequently relegated back to obscurity by Las Vegas oddsmakers and national media alike.

But with all the negative energy flowing the Hawkeyes’ way, they still find themselves in a unique situation that is both novel and routine at the same time as they prepare for Saturday’s game with the Buckeyes.

The novelty of the current circumstances is plain to see. “Rookie quarterback’s first start,” “de-facto Big Ten championship,” and “Rose Bowl play-in game” are not usually buzz words — or phrases, rather — in a Hawkeye fan’s vocabulary.

On the other hand, words such as “adversity,” “hostile environment,” and “underdogs” are all too familiar to the Iowa faithful — especially this season. Ferentz and Co. are 4-0 on the road entering the weekend, and despite being highly ranked, they have rarely been favored to win throughout the season.

“So we’re on the road. We’re underdogs,” Ferentz said on Tuesday. “We’ve got them right where we want them. That’s the way I’m looking at it.”


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