It was a beautiful September day in Kinnick Stadium, the first home game of the 2009 Iowa Football season. A festive spirit hung in the air, a return to tailgates and hoardes of fans in Hawkeye gear walking up Melrose to pour into Nile's shrine.
The high that came off the previous season's defeat of Penn State and Outback Bowl win was slightly diminished by the loss of Shonn Greene, and the more disappointing loss of his talented replacement Jewel Hampton, out for the season with a knee injury.
Perhaps this made some of us fans hopeful for a good season, but not necessarily expecting a great one. But none of us were prepared for the dramatic near-loss to a Division I-AA University of Northern Iowa team, prevented only by back-to-back field goal blocks during the last minutes of the game.
As the dawn of the 2010 Football season approaches, some may wonder if the first game against Eastern Illinois on September 4th will be another ugly start.
I'm going to say NO, and here's why.
Kirk Ferentz was still claiming to be haunted by the UNI game during the basketball playoffs, when he watched the Panthers defeat Kansas and turned to his wife claiming, "That could have been us last year," when he saw the devastated looks on the Kansas fans. He's never going to forget that game, and he won't let his team forget it either. He will be highly motivated to erase the curse of a mediocre opening game showing.
Adrian Clayborn, during Mini-Media Day in June, admitted that the 2009 defense was not really prepared, not fully in shape at the beginning of the season. He then suggested that the 2010 defense, many players returning, have been working all spring and summer to get into proper shape.
Who am I to doubt Adrian? He has to prove why staying as a Hawkeye rather than leaving for the NFL was a valid choice. I would not want to be the defender on his squad who isn't pulling his weight this season, even in the very first game.
On the subject of something to prove, the "IT" guy, Quarterback Ricky Stanzi, has been spending countless hours pouring over film, working harder in the weight room and doing everything he can to prepare himself to eliminate his 2009 mistakes, namely interceptions and weak showing in the first half of games early in the season. Look for him to start showing off his hard work right away, leaving no doubt why he's one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten.
Personally, I am happy that the timing of the Eastern Illinois game was such that it will not pit ex-Hawkeye quarterback Jake Christensen against current Hawkeye starter Ricky Stanzi, since Jake Christensen is now graduated. As dramatic as that match-up might have been, the Iowa fan in me would have felt it was a twisted, cruel irony. Hawkeye against Hawkeye goes against my religion.
Looking at stats, Christensen did rather well at Eastern in 2009, and even scored a higher ESPN quarterback rating (132.73) than Stanzi (131.62). Like Iowa, Eastern took second place in their conference.
In 2010, Eastern will have to do without a seasoned quarterback, with two sophomores currently battling for the starting spot. They do have a punter ranked 9th in the NCAA, Kevin Cook. This season they return most of their players and are ranked 19th in their division. Compare that to Northern Iowa at 5th.
Bottom line, EIU is a decent team, but not nearly as good as Northern Iowa, so I don't see them doing as well against the Hawkeyes, even if Iowa performed the same as last year (and don't count on that!) Then there's the whole Penn State annihilation of EIU last year, holding them to only 60 rushing yards.
Look for Iowa to win this one handily and end the curse before it spreads. Let's see if back-up quarterback James Vandenberg can get some game time as well.