IOWA CITY, Ia. - You can't fault Iowa's effort this season. The execution, however, has left a lot to be desired.
Hawkeye Head Coach Kirk Ferentz and his players took solace in playing hard in Saturday's 20-17 loss to No. 9 Ohio State. It was an obvious coping skill and a mindset they‘ve held for the 12 years of this coaching regime.
Two games remain on the schedule and they need to get past another crushing defeat. You pack it in now, and it could affect the future, particularly next season.
There is no way around it, though. This season will be a what-might-have-been campaign for a large senior class what was honored here during Saturday's pre-game. No matter how many 24-hour rules they observe, they'll remember how time and time again defeat was snatched from the hands of victory.
Sure, they'll also enjoy thoughts of how things went the opposite way last season en route to an Orange Bowl win. They've won 29 games in the last three years. It's been a great run.
So, why will it be so tough to live with this season's four losses? Well, they've come by a combined 15 points and the blueprint for losing was repeated itself - poor late-game execution in all three phases and dumb penalities. That takes a cumulative toll and tends to stick in your head.
The mild-mannered Julian Vandervelde showed the impact before speaking with the media on Saturday. He asked that nobody inquire how he felt. It was obvious.
Few people will remember this Iowa team for what it could have been. They're look back on what it was.
"We lost four games," Iowa Quarterback Ricky Stanzi said. "I mean, that's what it says. You can think you're not a four-loss team, but it is what it is. We obviously weren't good to have won those games.
"That's football. There's no way to say we feel like we're better than that. The record doesn't say it, so what's the point of thinking that?"
Stanzi took a lot of the blame for the four losses this season. To be honest, he should. That's kicking a guy when he‘s down. That's just his job as a leader and a fifth-year senior QB. His opposite number is making the plays.
Iowa's offense has scored 18, 17 and 17 points the last three weeks. Ohio State's defense was formidable. Indiana and Northwestern's the previous weeks were not. It just hasn't been good enough, especially when you consider the experience on that side of the ball.
"I thought our O-Line did a very good job," Stanzi said. "I just needed to make some better reads at times. That stalled us. If I would have made some better reads, got some better passes off and completed a few, it might have been different."
With the game tied at 10 early in the fourth quarter, Shaun Prater's interception set Iowa up with a first and 10 on the visitors' 27. Two plays later, true freshman Marcus Coker plunged in from a yard out and Mike Meyer's PAT game the home team a 17-10 lead with about 12 minutes to play in the game.
Ohio State responded with a 11-play drive that ended in a Devin Barclay 48-yard field goal with 7:38 left in regulation. On the ensuing kickoff, the Hawkeyes' Lance Tillison was flagged for a block in the back and they started at their own 19. Iowa went three and out and punted it back to Ohio State.
The Buckeyes took over at their own 24 with just over six minutes to play in the game. They got out to the 50 and Terrelle Pryor threw a beautiful pass to DaVier Posey , who dropped it in the end zone bringing up a fourth and 10. No problem. Pryor scrambled for 14 on the next play.
A few snaps later, Pryor threw a 24-yard pass to Dane Sanzenbacher down to the Iowa two. Dan Herron ran it across the goal line from a yard out two plays later and Barclay's kick gave the visitors a 20-17 lead.
I nice kick return by Paul Chaney gave Iowa the ball at its own 36. The Hawkeyes had 1:47 on the clock and three timeouts.
Stanzi threw a couple of incomplete passes and then was sacked for an 11-yard loss. After a timeout, the Ohio native complete a 19-yard pass to Marvin McNutt on a fourth and 21. It was just short, a microcosm of the season.
"I don't know," Stanzi said when asked if he thought it would be enough for the first down. "I was just picking my teeth up off the ground. I don't remember."
Iowa used :37 seconds on the final drive. A little over half a minute with no suspense. Game over.
"We haven't answered on any of the two-minute drives at all this year," Stanzi said.
He's right. It happens. It just doesn't happen four times in one season a whole lot.
"You know, I'm not real big on that game, I guess, especially since the guys played so hard," Ferentz said when asked if it was a could-have-been season. "I don't know what they could have played any harder. Our guys couldn't. We didn't do some things well enough to win."
And that's how you're judged - wins and losses. That's why they keep score.
Iowa should feel better than it did in 2006 and 2007, when the effort fell off from what it showed earlier in the decade. The sky isn't falling. The program is in a better place than it was three years ago.
However, momentum is a strange thing. Bad habits and a sense of entitlement are given as reasons for what happened in a downward trend that began after the 2004 season and carried on until a 6-6 campaign in 2007. In 2008, the Hawkeyes won their last four games, including the Outback Bowl and carried the confidence and success into 2009.
That pendulum swings both ways, good and bad.
"The hope for us seniors, those of us that are going to be leaving, that this year to next year is what 2008 was to 2009," Iowa Guard Julian Vandervelde said. "It can't be a downward slope from the Orange Bowl to another bowl to nothing. We need to use it as a springboard so next year's team comes out and makes the adjustments that we couldn't make this year and they have the kind of success that we had last year."
Iowa could benefit greatly from winning the next two games. The program will have many more question marks coming into next season than it did coming into this one. You don't want to head into the off-season losing three of four.
It starts at Minnesota next week. It's not a lay-up just like the last two road games at Indiana and Northwestern were not the strolls in the park some people expected. Not many people will be watching now that Iowa has fallen off the national radar, but a whole lot is riding on the battle for Floyd of Rosedale.