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Next man, next game

BY JON LINDER | DECEMBER 16, 2009 7:30 AM

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When the clock strikes midnight in southern Florida and Kirk Ferentz rings in the New Year, the memories of Iowa’s struggles because of injuries this season should quickly fade.

For the rest of Hawkeye nation, it will be much harder to forget how the team responded.

“If it hadn’t been for [our players’] resolve, the way they persevered during the course of the year, we wouldn’t be sitting here tonight talking about a BCS bid,” Ferentz said after hearing his team will meet ACC champion Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 5, 2010.

In a season marked by gritty playmaking and fourth-quarter comebacks, the Hawkeyes’ resiliency may be the defining characteristic for a team that exceeded almost all preseason expectations.

The Hawkeyes’ first hit came well before the season started when presumable starter sophomore running back Jewel Hampton tweaked his knee during a noncontact drill. Rumors swirled for nearly two months until another setback during camp caused Iowa’s leading returning rusher to have season-ending surgery.

Within two weeks, a pair of freshmen solidified themselves as a more-than-serviceable backfield tandem.

The emergence of redshirt freshman Adam Robinson and true freshman Brandon Wegher was timely, because that same week, Iowa was dealt another crushing injury blow.

Arguably the most talented returning player, and a three-year mainstay on the offensive line, junior Bryan Bulaga sat out the next three weeks with a mystery illness that was later revealed as a thyroid condition.

Redshirt freshman Riley Reiff stepped in for Bulaga at left tackle and helped the Hawkeyes to three-consecutive wins. Reiff started his first Big Ten road game at then-No. 5 Penn State.

Bulaga wasn’t the only key contributor to miss the Hawkeyes’ romp in State College, Pa. Senior tight end Tony Moeaki, Iowa’s leading receiver at that point, missed that game and several others with a high ankle sprain.

The Black & Gold survived a comeback attempt from Arkansas State in Week Five when Bulaga made his own comeback, but the team lost receiver Paul Chaney Jr. for the year during the following game against Michigan.

The game in East Lansing was ugly, and it only got worse.

The 8-0 Hawkeyes traveled to meet the Spartans, and arguably the hardest-hitting game in the conference all year ensued.

Despite one of the most memorable finishes in Iowa history — a last-second victory — the Hawkeyes left Spartan stadium with a handful of serious injuries to accompany their 9-0 record.

Junior wide receiver Colin Sandeman and junior safety Brent Greenwood both took vicious hits on the night that kept them out of the next two contests.

Robinson hurt his ankle late in the game, sustaining a high ankle sprain that kept him out for two weeks. Another blow rocked the squad with senior offensive lineman Dace Richardson’s broken ankle. He had turned in an All-American season up to that point after a injury to his right knee nearly derailed his career in previous years.

Despite the attrition in East Lansing, Iowa responded with a 28-point fourth-quarter comeback against Indiana behind Wegher and junior quarterback Ricky Stanzi.

The next week, Iowa went up 10-0 in the first five minutes against Northwestern and seemed to be poised to post a long-awaited blowout. Later in the first half, however, Stanzi lay writhing in the Iowa end zone with a high ankle sprain.

Redshirt freshman James Vandenberg struggled in place of Stanzi and Iowa was unable to score again, losing for the first time, 17-10.

Iowa’s next game, at then-No. 10 Ohio State, remained the de facto Big Ten championship, with the winner heading to the Rose Bowl.

Robinson returned for the game, and turned in a gritty performance on the ground. Vandenberg torched the Ohio State defense for 233 yards and two touchdowns, but the Hawkeyes fell, 27-24, in overtime.

Vandenberg struggled somewhat in the regular season finale at home against Minnesota, but Iowa’s defense held the Golden Gophers to just 201 total yards for the second-straight shutout in the series, 12-0.

“We lost our starting quarterback, but we didn’t miss a beat the next week,” junior defensive lineman Christian Ballard said after the Minnesota game. “We came out today and showed what our defense can do.

“Hopefully, people see that and see that we are a Big Ten contender and we can play with any team in the country.”

The unlikely star against the Gophers was junior linebacker Troy Johnson, who climbed the depth charts quickly when both Jeremiha Hunter and Jeff Tarpinian were ruled unfit to play because of injuries. Johnson collected 11 tackles, a forced fumble, and a sack on the day, and the Big Ten named him co-Defensive Player of the Week.

Break likely equals healthy Hawkeyes

As much as the team has rallied behind its uncanny attitude this fall, it will welcome the chance to have an almost-full complement of players when No. 10 Iowa meets No. 9 Georgia Tech on Jan. 5.

Stanzi returned to practice earlier this month, as did Robinson, Tarpinian, and Hunter. Richardson remains the only question mark, but Ferentz has said he wouldn’t be surprised to see the big guy back for the final game of his Hawkeye career.

The Hawkeyes were never quite totally healthy this season, and they never “won pretty.” But the team sees some promise in the prospect of getting as near to full strength as it has been since August.

“It’s a confidence builder to know your guys are back out there and we have our regular starters back,” Stanzi said. “But even if we didn’t, we’d still have confidence. Everyone understands how important ‘next man in’ is at Iowa, because of the way Coach Ferentz preaches it.”


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