Howe: Hawks Take Big Step in Loss

Yeah, it never feels good to lose. And the Hawkeyes' 26-24 loss in Saturday's Alamo Bowl stings. However, Senior Writer Rob Howe digs in and uncovers the silver lining in this loss.

SAN ANTONIO _ Andy Brodell lowered his head into Jim Thorpe Award winner Aaron Ross as he crossed the goal line late in Saturday's third quarter at the Alamodome. It looked every bit as beautiful as the Iowa receiver's 63-yard sprint into the end zone earlier in the game.

You've heard the cliché "playing Iowa football" come out of the mouths of the Hawkeyes all of the time. Brodell showed you "Iowa Football." He easily could have sidestepped Ross, but he sought out the Texas defensive back to deliver a lick, leave a mark and make a statement.

Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said on Friday that he wanted to see his team play with great effort, be fundamentally sound, and be smart when it met Texas in the Alamo Bowl here. He got it.

The Hawkeyes dropped a heartbreaker, 26-24, in the Longhorns' backyard, but they jumped out to a 14-0 lead and stood in position to win with a few minutes left on the clock. The team that lost to Indiana, Minnesota and Northwestern, looked more like the team that many predicted would challenge for a Big Ten title before the season began.

The average college football fan will look at the score of the game and probably not think much of it. Texas won. Iowa fell to 6-7. Big deal.

Well, Iowa fans know better. The Hawkeyes looked like the team that they grew to love during this decade. They brought maximum effort to compete with programs with greater pedigree.

The Iowa players entered the post game press conference with heads held high, a stark contrast to their demeanor after falling 34-24 at Minnesota in the regular-season finale last month. You never enjoy losing, but when you leave it all out on the field, you sleep much, much better at night.

"We proved that when we look at the teams across the nation, we can play with anybody," Iowa Guard Mike Elgin said. "We learned that nobody in the nation is out of our reach. If we just work hard, we can play with those teams.

"This year, we learned that nothing is easy, but anything is achievable. If we take that from this bowl prep and this bowl game, that's a great step forward for this program."

We knew that the bowl preparation was a return to fundamentals. Ferentz said he viewed his team's position after the Minnesota game as a fall back to 1999, when he was building his program.

Saturday, players came forth with more information. They talked about December two-a-days followed by weight-lifting sessions with Coach Chris Doyle.

"The coaches did a great job of getting us ready, getting us prepared," Iowa Safety Miguel Merrick said. "Coach Doyle, we probably saw him the most out of everybody, but it's what we needed. We had to lift after a practice. That's the first time we ever did that. That's the reason why we played how we played today."

Iowa fans should have been worried coming into Saturday's game against the defending national champion. A who's who of high school football all-Americans filled the Longhorns' roster. If the Hawkeyes that sleepwalked through much of the '06 campaign showed up, this might have been messy.

Iowa erased any doubt in the minds of onlookers by smacking the Longhorns in the mouth from the opening kickoff. The Hawkeyes ran the ball against a team that doesn't normally allow the rush to hurt it and connected on the big play when Brodell outraced orange defenders that were supposed to be superior athletes.

"The last six weeks or so, when you're down like that, it's human instinct to question yourself a little bit," Iowa Cornerback Adam Shada said. "It was definitely important for us to get out there and get the confidence back.

"We proved to ourselves that we are the team that we thought we were. We've just act like it. We came out with the right mentality and played Iowa football. We played well. Unfortunately, we came up a little short."

In any close game, you can point to a play here or there that costs a team a chance to win. Iowa ran a reverse option pass play that the Longhorns blew up in the fourth quarter and kicker Kyle Schlicher missed badly on a 45-yard field goal attempt.

Ferentz absorbed the blame for the option pass, but I don't fault the effort. The Hawks tried to catch Texas off guard. The Longhorns sniffed it out and made a good play.

Texas also suffered through its fair share of mistakes. It just produced enough big plays to win.

In a simple assessment, this just turned out to be a heck of a college football game with both teams delivering great effort. Like Longhorns Coach Mack Brown said at its conclusion, nobody really deserved to loss this one.

I did catch myself wondering what this season would have been like had the Hawkeyes shown this toughness and intestinal fortitude all campaign.

"We'd probably be playing on January 1st," Iowa Running Back Albert Young said. "Everybody saw when we play the way we're capable of what we can do. I just wish the seniors could have gone out a better way, but they're leaving with pride. They played hard. I'm not down at all about this."

The Iowa players found it difficult to figure out what went wrong during the season, but a few of them seemed somewhat thankful to have learned a valuable lesson.

"In a way, I'm glad what happened, happened," Merrick said. "Maybe we were taking it for granted that we were going to get to a bowl game because we're Iowa. It doesn't work like that."

Said Shada: "You come in as a true freshman and you don't understand what it takes to win at this level. We aren't the most athletic team on the field every time. We've got players, don't get me wrong, but there aren't very many teams that can walk on the field and win. Ohio State, maybe, but we're not like that. We have to earn everything we get."

Iowa returns a lot of firepower next season, and the last month served as an example for younger players and future starters about what it takes to win at Iowa.

"They need to take this into the spring," Merrick said. "They need to realize that any game could be your last and they have to play each game like that."

I'll admit it. I was worried. I really didn't like the direction this team was headed after that game at Minnesota. It almost was like we were watching the Hawkeyes from a Bizarre World.

Thankfully, the program we grew to respect and admire returned to Hawkeye Nation on Saturday. It didn't guarantee anything for next year, but it restored hope for '07. And really, that shouldn't be a surprise when you consider who's captaining this ship.

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