CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Shonn Greene summed it up best.
"Could have, should have, would have, but it is what it is."
"It" is a 5-4 Iowa football team after another heartbreaking, 27-24 loss to Illinois here at Memorial Stadium on Saturday. "It" is an Hawkeye squad with four losses coming by a combined 12 points. "It" is a team fighting for a postseason bid - again - with No. 3 Penn State coming to Iowa City next week.
This year's Iowa team plays with great heart. It's undoing is poor execution and untimely mistakes. It also features a starting quarterback that's a work in progress.
The Hawkeyes started the season with three wins then lost three in a row. They then rolled over Indiana and Wisconsin before having a bye heading into the game here. In those games, they played clean football and appeared to have overcome being mistake-prone, as it had been in the losing skid.
"That's the thing about football," Greene said. "You think you got it going and somaething comes back to bite you. "
Saturday, quarterback Ricky Stanzi turned the ball over three times, including a fumble deep in his end that was returned for a touchdown. There were special team blunders and penalties in the red zone. Illinois recorded six sacks.
Iowa isn't talented enough to overcome that many mistakes. Few teams in this conference can rise above sloppy play.
"Missed opportunities and turnovers usually factor in," Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. "We've been down this road before. Tight ballgames, tough losses, those things usually end up showing up."
This biggest problem with excepting that for coaches, players and fans, was that it happened in Week 9. You hoped that the Hawkeyes moved above that during their run against Indiana and Wisconsin. Saturday painfully proved that Iowa still is a team very susceptible to shooting itself in the foot.
That's very scary when you consider how tight this conference has played this fall. The difference between winning and losing has most often come down to which team makes the fewest errors.
"When you lose close games, you can always go back and look at missed opportunities," Ferentz said. "We can't give up the big play. We played pretty well in the kicking game, but we had a couple of obvious miscues there. Anytime you lose a close ballgame, you can go back and look at 15 or 20 things. We'll find ourselves doing that tonight and tomorrow."
Trent Mossbrucker missed a 30-yard field goal attempt in the second quarter. The freshman then hit one midway though the third quarter to close his team's deficit to one at 10-9. But Daniel Murray hit the ensuing kickoff out of bounds, squashing momentum and giving Illinois good field position. The Illini cashed in with a 50-yard touchdown bomb from Juice Williams to Fred Sykes during which Iowa blew coverage.
The Iowa kickers had plenty of company in untimely errors.
Andy Brodell returned a punt 20 yards to set Iowa up with a first down on its 49 late in the first half. On the first play from scrimmage, Stanzi was intercepted> Illinois turned it into a field goal right before the intermission.
In the second quarter, Amari Spievey picked off a pass and returned it deep inside Illinois territory. Matt Kroul was whistled for an illegal block on the play, backing Iowa up. The visitors were able to get a first and goal on the series, but a false start penalty moved them back again and they settled for a field goal.
Iowa struggled along the offensive line more than it had in a long time. It really missed Seth Olsen as the guards suffered through a rough day. Illinois brought pressure up the middle far too often.
"We were playing more crisp," Kroul said about the team before the bye week. "Today, we made some mistakes. It happens some days. It can't happen, though. We have to make those corrections and play cleaner from here on out."
It's really hard to have a lot of faith in that happening. The Hawkeyes certainly are capable of having things go either way. It's difficult to say what team will show up next week against Penn State or in any of the three remaining games.
Iowa has fought hard. They fell behind 24-9 on Saturday only to tie it at 24-24 late in the fourth quarterback. They battled at Pittsburgh earlier this year, overcoming a poor start to fall short by one point. They came back at Michigan State, but couldn't finish it off.
For the first time on Saturday, it seemed like a close loss took a bit more out of them than earlier in the season. The players sat a little more on the edge during postgame interviews. It felt like a punch in the gut after they had improved beyond the level at which they played here.
Iowa could be 9-0. But could means nothing when they wake up Sunday morning. As Greene said, it is what it is, a team one game over .500 overall and 3-3 in the conference.
"Coming off two wins where we did virtually everything right, it's hard," Andy Brodell said. "It's just not executing in the biggest spots, which for the offense is the red zone. Not only that, a lot of the turnovers have occurred in the red zone.
"It's tough to put your finger on it. I've been part of four or five Iowa football teams, and other than maybe my first year, I don't think we prepared any better than we have this year. We've done a great job at practice. We've got better each and every week. It's hard because we've been so close to being perfect. The bottom line is we're not executing when we need to."
And therein lies the reason why no matter what happens from here on out, players on this team and Iowa fans around the country will look back at the 2008 season and wonder what might have been. We know what it is.