Carrying On About Big Ten Football: September 19

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Carrying On About Big Ten Football: September 19
(Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

Well, a Big Ten team finally beat a Pac-10 opponent. 

It was due to happen eventually, right? 

After Ohio State dropped a heartbreaking three-point decision to USC, Purdue lost by two at Oregon, and Minnesota gave nationally-ranked Cal all it could handle, the Hawkeyes finally broke through to get a big win against Arizona at Kinnick Stadium. 

Coach Kirk Ferentz's team is 3-0 heading into Big Ten play with a trip to Happy Valley looming. Here's five things we learned about the Hawkeyes this weekend...

 

UNDER THE MICROSCOPE: IOWA 27, ARIZONA 17

1.  The first-half version of Ricky Stanzi is a long way from being a Big Ten champion-caliber quarterback. 


Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi has completed less than 50 percent of his first-half passes for the Hawkeyes this season, which is causing no small amount of consternation in Iowa City.

Stanzi continued his trend of poor play before intermission by misfiring on nine of his 18 attempts in the first half against Arizona. In addition to missing wide-open receivers, Stanzi completed one pass to the other team for a first-quarter "pick six" that wasn't even close. 

Things got so bad in the opening half that an audible gasp went up from the crowd as soon as Stanzi released the ball late on one particular out route. Since Arizona already had scored once on a poor Stanzi throw to the far sideline, it seemed that all 70,000 fans in sold-out Kinnick Stadium realized Stanzi's mistake before the ball even left his hand. 

Fortunately for the home team, the throw ended up falling harmlessly incomplete, but it basically summed up Stanzi's less-than-desirable first half. 

I've never heard such an audible reaction to a throw before it was caught/intercepted/knocked away. 

Questionable decisions, overthrows, miscues, and the only touchdown pass going to the white-shirted defender instead of the black-shirted receiver, with the way Stanzi's first half went, the Hawkeyes were lucky to come away with a victory.

Or as Stanzi told reporters, "I threw my first pick six and I threw it in a game we won.  I guess that's kind of a good thing."

 

2.  The second-half version of Ricky Stanzi may be the best quarterback in the Big Ten.


Iowa fans may be losing sleep over the way Stanzi has played before intermission, but nobody's complaining about how the junior has performed in the second half. Stanzi hit on 11-of-14 throws after the break against Arizona, giving him an impressive 78.6 percent completion rate in the second half. 

The Hawkeyes' field general made excellent decisions, especially on third down: Iowa converted a solid 10-of-19 attempts. Stanzi's confidence and leadership also led to Iowa dominating the time of possession, and the Hawks scoring 20 unanswered points to put the Wildcats away (largely due to Stanzi's game management).

If Stanzi's Jekyll-and-Hyde performance on either side of halftime was an anomaly, I wouldn't waste so much column space on it, but the quarterback has seemed to follow that trend in each of the Hawkeyes' three games. Wonder how much it would cost Iowa to arrange for the scoreboard in State College to show "Third quarter" from the opening kickoff?


3.  Iowa's defense is for real.


Right now, Hawkeye safety Tyler Sash is intercepting a pass about as often as one of the Kardashian sisters appears on television. Sash got his fourth pick in the last two games when he snagged a third-quarter Arizona pass and returned it 41 yards.

The sophomore standout tied for the team lead last year with five interceptions, and has nearly equaled that total already in 2009. 

While Sash is driving opposing quarterbacks crazy, it's the Iowa defensive line that's causing them pain. The Hawkeyes' front four rushed Arizona's Mike Scott and Nick Foles all afternoon, creating havoc and keeping the 'Cats from establishing any sort of rhythm and continuity. 

On one memorable series, defensive end Adrian Clayborn came all the way from the other side of the formation to drag a Wildcat ballcarrier down from behind on a sweep, then Broderick Binns (another Hawkeye DE) got in the backfield and swatted a pass attempt away on the very next snap. 

Clayborn in particular was a revelation, finishing with six tackles, a sack, a tackle for loss, and a forced fumble. Although Sash may get the majority of the headlines for his boatload of interceptions, it's the line that's harassing the quarterback into poor decisions time and again. 

The Sash interception against Arizona, which came at a pivotal moment late in the third quarter with the Hawkeyes nursing a seven-point lead, is a perfect illustration. 

The errant throw really looked like more of a punt than anything else: Scott just reared back and heaved the ball basically straight up in the sky hoping his receiver could run under it, but the massive hang time allowed Sash (playing some sort of center fielder position) plenty of time to hustle over and make the play. Credit Clayborn and company up front for keeping Scott uncomfortable and causing the horrible decision.


4.  Coach Ferentz may have found himself a new running back.


It was obvious in August that the Hawkeyes would struggle to replace current New York Jet Shonn Greene in the backfield. It became obvious a few weeks later how difficult that task would really be when heir apparent Jewel Hampton had season-ending knee surgery. 

To me, Iowa and Wisconsin have always been prototypical Big Ten teams with monster linemen, blue-collar/homegrown players, and rush-oriented offensive schemes. With that said, the loss of a projected starting running back would seem to be most costly in Iowa City.

However, there appears to be hope on the horizon with the emergence of redshirt freshman Adam Robinson, who has gone from not making the two-deep roster after spring practice to posting his first 100-yard game on Saturday in Kinnick Stadium. 

Robinson finished with a game-high 101 yards on 18 carries and two touchdowns to lead the Hawkeye offense. If Robinson and the other Iowa backs can muster a decent yards-per-carry number, that will make Stanzi's job much easier and open up the play-action passing game. 

In other words, Saturday's backfield outburst is a promising sign for the entire offensive unit.      
 

5. Iowa's season will be defined by how the Hawkeyes handle adversity. 


In addition to losing Hampton for the year, Iowa has had plenty of other injury issues to deal with. In Saturday's game alone, the shorthanded Hawks played without star offensive lineman Bryan Bulaga (illness), wideout Derrell Johnson-Koulianos (hamstring), and tight end Tony Moeaki. 

Fans in the "cup half-empty" camp will write Ferentz's crew off as snake-bitten, and point to the near-loss against Northern Iowa (when Iowa was ranked at the time) as proof that this team doesn't have the talent to make a run in the Big Ten, and dream of what could have been. 

On the other hand, the more optimistic observers will realize that although the deck couldn't possibly have been stacked more against Iowa, the Hawkeyes have survived to start 3-0. And if they ever get healthy, this team will be a force to be reckoned with when conference play rolls around.

And that's why they play the games.



MAYBE BROADCASTING IS EASIER THAN I THOUGHT

Without further ado, the quotes that made me chuckle from Saturday's games...


"It's been one of those defensive-offensive battles." — Rod Woodson

"Blitz coming from Church." — Michael Reghi  (look out, nobody blocked the preacher!)

"Purdue gives it up on downs again." — Craig Coshun (after a 3rd-down play)

"This has been the most psychotic game I've seen in a long time." — Mike Patrick

"If you're a coach for both sidelines right now, you say to your team, 'This is a tie game.'" — Craig James (at halftime with a 14-10 score)

"Jahvid Best an absolute caveman." — NBC studio host on a game-break.  (Caveman?  WHAT?)

best2.jpg





MAYBE COACHING IS EASIER THAN I THOUGHT

With his team trailing by a touchdown and about four minutes left Saturday afternoon, Purdue coach Danny Hope called timeout to challenge a third-down Northern Illinois pass completion that CAME UP SHORT OF A FIRST DOWN anyway. Although the Huskies' receiver clearly caught the ball, Hope chose to challenge and (in his mind) possibly leave NIU with a 4th-and-6 (if the pass was indeed incomplete) instead of 4th-and-1.

However, the call on the field was upheld (a no-brainer), which cost the Boilermakers a precious timeout. To make matters worse, the long delay allowed Northern Illinois coach Jerry Kill to scheme up a gutsy fake punt from his own 16-yard line. 

If Hope keeps the challenge flag in his pocket, NIU probably punts the ball away on 4th-and-1 and Purdue has an extra timeout for a possible game-tying drive. Instead, the Boilers gave away momentum, a timeout, and ultimately, an extra three minutes of NIU possession just on the slight chance the Huskies might have to punt from five yards further back.

Maybe coaching is easier than I thought.



MAYBE OFFICIATING IS EASIER THAN I THOUGHT

Sorry to stick with the Purdue/NIU game, but you will never see a wackier ending to a game than the last minute in Ross-Ade Stadium.

Description won't do it justice, but the referees nearly ran the clock out after a Purdue timeout (mistakenly), then took about 10 minutes to realize Purdue had indeed called a timeout, then had to reset the clock about 187 different times to get the time right, then topped it all off by calling an incomplete pass on what should have been the game's last play when Purdue tried to run the same hook-and-ladder they beat Michigan with in November 2008. 

The Boilermaker receiver clearly caught the ball, clearly tried to lateral it to a teammate and as the clock should have expired. The referee decided the pass was actually incomplete, causing about nine different blood vessels in Coach Kill's face to explode simultaneously.

Maybe officiating IS easier than I thought.



THANK GOODNESS FOR MY DVR

What an incredible dive by Iowa's Brandon Wegher into the end zone! Give him 9.3 on the dismount.

Michigan State's surprise second-quarter onside kick may have been the best-executed attempt in history. The ball barely crossed the 40-yard line (it was close enough that it took two replays to tell for sure), then reversed course and bounced back toward the onrushing Spartans players (and away from the waiting Irish). Can't draw it up better than that.

Great punt return by Purdue's Aaron Valentin in one of the Boilermakers' few highlights from Saturday. Valentin appeared to juke out about 13 different Huskies.

Eric Decker made the catch of the day (and maybe of the year) when he absorbed a brutal hit from a California safety and pulled in a 26-yard touchdown for the Gophers' first points. Decker tied the school record with his 198th career catch, then broke it (fittingly) on a second touchdown later in the quarter. The Gophers' star even threw for a TD on the day, but it wasn't enough for Minnesota to pull an upset.

My favorite play was easily Notre Dame's Golden Tate jumping directly into the Michigan State band after a touchdown.  So much for the "Lambeau Leap"...that was more like a "Tuba Tumble".

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

If I was a gambler... 
Indiana shouldn't have been an underdog at Akron. Even if MAC teams occasionally beat Big Ten teams (and they do), any Big Ten program should be favored over any MAC team. Home or away. Period. If I was a betting man, I'd have made a lot of money on the Hoosiers this weekend.


What in the world?... And I would have lost all that money and then some when the high-powered Toledo offense completely laid an egg at Cleveland Browns Stadium. I know the home of the Browns isn't used to a lot of offensive fireworks, but a shutout?  Really? I lost count of the number of times Aaron Opelt threw a pass that bounced down the sideline with no receivers even in the same camera shot. Weird performance from Toledo. It makes me wonder about the mental impact of playing a BCS powerhouse from your same state.


Confusing mascot of the week... 
I will be lying awake in bed tonight for hours trying to figure out why the Arizona Wildcats use the slogan "BEAR Down". Please explain that to me. What do Wildcats and Bears have to do with each other? Now I'm just waiting for the Nittany Lions to add a "Go TIGERS Go" to their cheer arsenal.


Stats that just don't make sense... 
Since the beginning of the 1997 season, the Michigan State Spartans are 52-29 at home for a solid-if-not-spectacular winning percentage of 64.2 percent. During the same time span (until Saturday, obviously), Michigan State's winning percentage in South Bend, Indiana is exactly 100 percent (6-0).  If the Spartans had been able to make it seven straight wins at ND, it wouldn't have surprised me to see athletic director Mark Hollis checking into playing the entire home schedule at Notre Dame. Hey, if Indiana can move home games to Maryland...


Speaking of home games...
Syracuse's victory over Northwestern on Saturday was the first of SIX straight home dates for the Orange. Who makes these schedules anyway?


It was the best of times...it was the worst of times...  Purdue's Aaron Valentin was on top of the world after running a first-quarter punt back for a 62-yard touchdown against Northern Illinois. Then he dropped the next punt and the Huskies recovered.  Then he dropped the punt after that and Northern Illinois recovered that one too. 

No more punt returns for Mr. Valentin.


Maybe quarterbacking is easier than I thought...  The final Spartan drive at Notre Dame was a thing of...well, pure ugliness.  Michigan State looked frantic, out of control, and completely unaware that three points would tie the game and send them to overtime with momentum. I understand playing for the win on the road, but not when it means throwing a risky pass and sacrificing the field-goal attempt in your back pocket.

Kirk Cousins' last three throws were a lucky completion that bounced off the hands of a defender, an overthrow of a wide-open receiver in the end zone, and then the fateful interception that sealed the Spartans' defeat. 

Even though the first of those three plays ended up being complete, coach Mark Dantonio should have been talking to his quarterback after the near-escape, reminding him that MSU absolutely couldn't turn the ball over. Worst case, the State coaching staff could adjust the play-calling and take the conservative approach to a nearly-certain three points. 

There's just no excuse for making low-percentage throws when a field goal ties the game. None.


How not to run the Wildcat... Did you see Notre Dame's Golden Tate and Armando Allen literally run over each other on the overused single-wing play? That's not the way Ronnie Brown drew it up, let me tell you...


This weekly series is also featured on FirstandBigTen.com, a Bleacher Report blog dedicated to Big Ten football.

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