As Minnesota ran out the clock on Saturday night to preserve a 27-24 victory, the Iowa players walked off the field, dejected. It was a fitting end to a disappointing season, perhaps the most disappointing in recent history.
The Hawkeyes had a chance to salvage a once-promising season and virtually lock up a space in the Outback Bowl—not a BCS bowl, but a good one nonetheless. Instead, for a team that had dreams of playing in Glendale on January 10, a trip to Tempe's Insight Bowl seems like a grim possibility.
For this Iowa team, 7-5 didn't even seem possible. With 29 seniors, the nation's top defensive line, a full stable of running backs and a veteran quarterback, the 2010 Iowa Hawkeyes were the most hyped team the program has ever seen. And now we're all left to wonder how we could have been so off base.
Iowa has always prided itself with coaching up players. Kirk Ferentz recruits players that nobody wanted—Shonn Greene, Chad Greenway, Bob Sanders, Dallas Clark and Pat Angerer to name a few—and turns them into All Americans and NFL stars. His offensive lines are made up of stereotypical Iowa farm boys who bully opposing Big Ten defenses, and his own defense, led by genius defensive coordinator Norm Parker, typically ranks near the top in the country thanks to its vanilla, team-style approach.
But this Iowa squad was special. It had talent that didn't need to be coached up. It had All-American defensive end Adrian Clayborn. It had possibly the best running back trio in the country. It had a possible All-Big Ten quarterback and it had the best defensive line in the country. Combine Kirk Ferentz's coaching and the talent he had to work with, and this was a special team.
However, as Iowa has always preached, talent doesn't guarantee success.
The Hawkeyes learned that exact lesson after the 2005 season. A team that was coming off a share of the 2004 Big Ten championship and a last second victory in the Capital One Bowl had nearly everybody coming back. And instead of challenging for a Big Ten title, Iowa laid an egg. Drew Tate and company were demolished by No. 1 Ohio State, leading to a downfall and an eventual loss to Florida in the Outback Bowl.
The comparisons between 2005 and 2010 are strikingly similar. In both cases there were high expectations. In both cases the Hawkeyes had an abnormal amount of talent. And in both cases, the season ended in disappointment.
But this year was supposed to be different.
Not only does Adrian Clayborn have talent, but he was supposed to have the leadership ability and the discipline needed to win. Not only will Ricky Stanzi play in the NFL someday, but he knew how to win when the game was on the line.
The intangibles seemed to be there for the 2010 Hawkeyes, but in reality they weren't. And a team that won all of its close games in 2009 couldn't come through in the clutch in 2010. This year's team was 19 points from being undefeated. Instead it sits at 7-5. Iowa was 19 points from greatness. Instead it fell to mediocrity.
On the surface, all of Iowa's losses were easy to figure out. In fact, they all followed virtually the same script: They had a lead in the fourth quarter, couldn't extend that lead, couldn't make a stop on defense, then crumbled on their last offensive series.
But while the surface level problems were obvious, the intangibles were what really led to the Hawkeyes' problems.
Nobody stepped up to make a play. The offensive line crumbled against Arizona. The punt protection broke down against Wisconsin. The defense was gassed against Northwestern. The defensive line couldn't take down Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor. And finally, the Iowa offense fumbled away its chance to salvage a season against Minnesota.
There were no fourth-quarter comebacks. There was no more magic. But was it really magic that was missing?
Perhaps Adrian Clayborn said it best: "We lost our will to win."
While the 2010 team didn't lose many of its starters, it lost its emotional edge. Players like Pat Angerer and AJ Edds not only made a difference on the stat sheet, they made a difference in the locker room and a difference on the field. And in the end, that made a difference in the win column.
If there's one criticism of Iowa's coaches, it's that they don't allow personality. Kirk Ferentz never allowed Derrell Johnson-Koulianos to express himself. It wasn't the "Iowa way," Ferentz claimed. But just like a team needs its straight and narrow players, it needs an emotional leader who can fire his team up.
When DJK started yelling at a player who pushed him out of bounds, he could have given Iowa's offense a spark. Instead, Ferentz pulled him aside. And instead of giving Iowa's all-time leading receiver the start in his final regular-season game, Ferentz started another player who better represented the "Iowa way."
For the first time since 2007, the Kirk Ferentz haters will likely speak out again. While there is no doubt in my mind that Ferentz is the best coach in the country to lead Iowa—his demeanor fits the program and the state perfectly—his doubters may have a legitimate point.
Ferentz always wants to be Mr. Nice Guy, not wanting to upset anybody. His conservative play-calling makes Jim Tressel's playbook look like Nancy Pelosi's political platform. We saw a killer instinct once this year, and the Hawkeyes beat No. 5 Michigan State, 37-6. For Iowa to achieve a truly great season, Ferentz needs to be fired up every game. He doesn't need to be Bo Pelini on the sideline, but he needs to coach with emotion.
A team's character reflects its coach. And although Iowa was strong, greatness takes passion and emotion.
This year, Iowa was emotionless. It didn't have a leader to count on when it needed one most. And consequently, this season ended like 2005. The Hawkeyes had talent, but sometimes it takes more than talent to win.
Next year, Iowa won't be ranked in the preseason polls. It loses its starting quarterback and much of its ultra-talented defense.
But history is the best teacher, and as we've learned from the past, that might be Iowa's ticket for success.
Unlike the 2010 team, next year's team is filled with recruits that nobody wanted. It has players, such as Mike Daniels, who play with fire and emotion, and the offense will be built off of a power running game.
Maybe Iowa will return to its grassroots. Maybe it will find a leader, a Pat Angerer that will step up when the team needs it most. Because no matter how much talent this team had, 7-5 was the best it could do without a true leader.
Tomorrow is a new day and September 3, 2011, starts a new season.
But it's clear that the Hawkeyes have lost their will to win. And for Iowa to ever be elite, it needs to find a way to regain that passion.