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Cover story: Hawkeyes hyped no more

BY MITCH SMITH | DECEMBER 15, 2010 7:10 AM

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The expectations were high for the 2010 Iowa football team.

Big Ten title.

Rose Bowl.

Maybe even national championship.

Some of Kirk Ferentz's previous Iowa teams have struggled to live up to the hype, but this group was supposed to be different.

The Hawkeyes returned 16 starters from their Orange Bowl champion team. They had their best quarterback since Chuck Long, their deepest receiving corps in years, and a highly touted defense led by Adrian Clayborn and Tyler Sash.

As wide receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos said at Iowa media day on Aug. 6: "On paper, we're national champions."

Some prognosticators agreed.

ESPN's Ivan Maisel had the Hawkeyes ranked No. 2 in his preseason poll, predicting Iowa and Alabama would meet in Glendale, Ariz., for the BCS national-championship game.

Despite the excitement, the Hawkeyes attempted to stay grounded.

"Moral of the story is expectations have nothing to do with how the season is going to turn out," Ferentz said on Aug. 6. "… We don't know what's going to happen out here or on the road in those 12 ball games."

Boy, was the 12-year head coach right. Expectations are not a benchmark for success. Iowa certainly proved that this season. The Hawkeyes are not prepping for a BCS-bowl game — they aren't even getting ready for a New Year's Day contest.

More than three months since opening the 2010 campaign, Iowa is a five-loss team, unranked for the first time in more than a year and riding a three-game losing streak that includes a loss to lowly Minnesota.

With losing three-straight games to close out the regular season, with Clayborn telling reporters after Iowa's loss to the Gophers that the Hawkeyes had lost the will to win, and with Johnson-Koulianos being arrested on drug charges, one question lingers in the minds of Hawkeye Nation:
What the hell happened?

Special teams

The struggles on special teams were evident from the beginning.

Eastern Illinois ran a fake punt in the Hawkeyes' season-opener, and Iowa State returned three kickoffs for 62, 37, and 23 yards in the second game.

Few thought much of these mistakes at the time, because Iowa outscored its first two opponents 72-14.

Paki O'Meara's blocked punt return for touchdown against Eastern Illinois kept peoples' minds off of the beleaguered unit until the Arizona game.

A blocked punt, missed extra point, and an 100-yard kickoff return for touchdown cost the team 15 points in its 34-27 loss to the Wildcats on Sept. 18.

"Our special teams are leaving a lot to be desired right now," Ferentz said the Tuesday following the Arizona loss. "Anytime you give up plays that are unearned … it makes it really difficult to win against anybody."

Those "unearned" plays continued to plague the Hawkeyes throughout the season.

A 31-30 loss to Wisconsin would have gone in Iowa's favor had it committed one fewer special-team error. The Hawkeyes missed yet another extra point, botched a field-goal attempt, and allowed a fake punt in the fourth quarter that led to a Badger touchdown.

In addition to the losses to the Badgers and Wildcats, Iowa also missed a field goal against Ohio State - a game the Hawkeyes lost by three points. It also allowed Minnesota to successfully recover an onside kick after the Gophers had scored on the first drive of the Nov. 27 contest, setting the tone for what was a long day for the Hawkeyes.

Injuries forced Iowa's hand

With O'Meara, Jeff Tarpinian, and Bruce Davis sidelined with injuries, the Hawks had no choice but to throw inexperienced players into the lineup and pray that they didn't screw up. That inexperience showed up.

Things got so bad that even some of the inexperienced players couldn't play on the special teams that the coaches had expected them to. As Ferentz said on Nov. 9, "[Freshman] James Morris would be a great kickoff coverage guy by this time of year. The only problem [is that] he's starting at middle linebacker."

Defense

Touted as one of the best defenses in the country, the Iowa D did everything it could to disprove that assessment during the final month of the regular season.

A unit once-ranked No. 1 in the country early in the season fizzled into a mediocre group that couldn't get off the field in crucial situations. During the team's three-game losing streak, Iowa allowed opponents to move the chains on more than half (53 percent) of their third downs.

In the Hawkeyes' five losses this season, opposing teams averaged 373.4 total yards and 26.6 points per game.

With a defensive line regarded as one of the nation's best and a pair of safeties who hold the same distinction, how could a group with so much promise play so poorly?

Losing linebackers Tarpinian, Davis, and Tyler Nielsen to injury didn't help. Losing Amari Spievey, Pat Angerer, and A.J. Edds to the NFL didn't help, either.

"We lost three NFL players off our defense," Ferentz said on Oct. 26. "Maybe some other people minimize that, but to me, that's a factor."

The stats don't lie.

In 2009, Iowa's pass defense (152.9 yard per game) was tops in the conference. This season, the Hawkeyes ranked sixth in the Big Ten in that category, allowing 60 more passing yards per game than a year ago.

The struggles aren't limited to the pass defense. Norm Parker's trademark "Six Seconds of Hell" defense was nearly nonexistent in 2010. Iowa racked up 11 fewer sacks than the Orange Bowl squad a year ago, giving opposing quarterbacks more time to find the holes in Iowa's secondary.

While the Hawkeyes managed to put forth the eighth-best pass rush in the nation, they struggled to stop opposing rushing attacks in the five losses. The unit allowed an average of 136 rushing yards ? 32.5 more yards than their season average of 103.5.

After allowing 216 rushing yards to Minnesota, defensive tackle Karl Klug couldn't find an answer.

Clayborn said the will to win was lost. It reached a point where the All-American defensive lineman was asking members of the media about what had gone wrong.

"I have no idea," he said. "I mean, if you can watch the film and tell me, I'd be pretty happy."

The future

With 26 seniors departing from the Iowa program after the Dec. 28 Insight Bowl, another question lingers: Which direction is this team headed?

The Hawkeyes have been down this road before, in which one bad season spirals into numerous disappointing ones. (See Iowa football from 2005-07.) It's a road players do not wish to travel again.

We've seen glimpses of how good this team is - or can be. The 31-point win over Big Ten co-champion Michigan State is Exhibit A. But whether that intensity carries over to the field in a "mediocre" bowl game remains to be seen.

Iowa's bowl matchup with Missouri holds much greater importance than just trying to cap a disappointing season with a win. Will the Hawkeyes enter Sun Devil Stadium with the energy that enabled them to dominate the Spartans? Or will Iowa fail to show up, as it did against Minnesota?

"This is the time of year where if you aren't self-motivated, then you shouldn't be playing in the first place," offensive lineman Julian Vandervelde said Nov. 27. "We as seniors; we have a responsibility to make sure that the young guys understand this bowl game is not just the end of a season. This is also the beginning of their next season. We may be gone, but whatever happens in this bowl game is going to catapult them on to next year."


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