TEMPE, Ariz. - Conventional wisdom said Iowa would need to play well and hope Oklahoma experienced an off game. While both teams played short-handed, the Hawkeyes lacked the firepower to play toe-to-toe with their Big 12 opponent.
It wasn't a lack of effort that cost Iowa in its 31-14 loss to the Sooners Friday night here at the Insight Bowl. It turned out to be a simple matter of the better team winning.
"We did some things to hurt ourselves," Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. "But Oklahoma had a big part in that, too. They are a very talented team, very aggressive, very quick and they were playing very hard."
Oklahoma entered the game at 9-3 and ranked 14th in the BCS standings. The Hawkeyes lost five regular-season contests and earned the bowl bid here based more on fan support than performance.
The outcome didn't result from the absence of Iowa's leading rusher, Marcus Coker (suspension). The Hawkeyes failed to take advantage of first-half scoring opportunities because of poor execution and stupid penalties. It created a hole from which they couldn't dig out.
Iowa's Superman, wide receiver Marvin McNutt, has dominated opponents most of the season, covering up some deficiencies on his offense. During those times, he wasn't facing the likes of Sooner CB Jamell Fleming.
"It was a fun match-up," McNutt said. "It was a battle the whole game. A lot of times, the ball went other places, really.
"Oklahoma had a game plan and they worked it well. (Iowa Quarterback James Vandenberg) and I just weren't connecting."
Fleming handcuffed McNutt most of the night. The Hawkeye senior caught one pass for 10 yards before halftime. He finished with four receptions for 46 yards, but he failed to get loose for any big plays. His longest catch went for 16 yards.
"I feel like I'm the best DB," Fleming said. "I want to be the best DB, so I'm against a great receiver. Having that challenge is important to me."
Iowa dropped passes, allowed sacks and committed too many penalties. It turned out to be a mistake-filled game in a mistake-filled season when talent couldn't overcome Hawkeye miscues.
The Hawkeyes were flagged for six penalties for 36 yards. Perhaps none of them loomed larger than a 38-yard pass from Vandenberg to Kevonte Martin-Manley that was wiped out by an illegal formation penalty late in the first half. It would have moved them into Oklahoma territory.
"A game like that, you are playing a good defensive team like that, you need every play," Ferentz said. "The yards came tough tonight. And unforced errors, that's something we can't afford to do. You can't afford that against anybody, certainly not a good opponent."
Oklahoma was far from perfect Friday. The Sooners overall talent covered up their troubles.
Iowa gift wrapped the Sooners' first touchdown. Quarterback James Vanderberg's ill-advised pass was picked off by Jamell Fleming and returned to the Hawkeye 10. Vanderberg made matters worse by committing a personal foul on the play.
Retiring Defensive Coordinator Norm Parker and his unit gave the Hawkeyes a chance. Oklahoma gained one first down and seven yards in the first quarter.
Iowa marched down to the Sooner six-yard line on its third possession. The Hawkeyes turned the ball over on downs after Jordan Canzeri was thrown for a three-yard loss on fourth and short.
It was refreshing to see Ferentz roll the dice and show faith in his offense. Oklahoma just made a play, one of many on the night.
The Iowa defense then held. The Sooners were forced to punt from their three. Again, Oklahoma delivered when punter Tress Way booted a 67-yarder to the Hawkeye 30.
Despite all of their troubles, the Hawkeyes' fight kept them in the game. They cut their deficit to 21-14 midway through the fourth quarter. Then, Oklahoma stepped on the gas again, as if to say, "OK, enough."
Iowa finishes the season at 7-6, an average football team, at best. The Hawkeyes now are 15-11 over the last two campaigns.
During a two-year span from 2006-07, Iowa accumulated a 13-14 mark. It came back to win 20 of 26 during its next two seasons.
It's hard to say Iowa is headed in the same direction going into '13. The Hawkeyes lose McNutt, likely three starting offensive lineman and six of 11 starters on defense.
Iowa is far from the bottom of the barrel, but significant strides will need to be made this offseason for a step forward to be taken next fall. The Hawkeyes just aren't matching up with the better competition the last two years.
"To replace 18 seniors like that is no easy task," Ferentz said. "A lot of guys at the other end will really have to step up. That's college football."