Miller: Improbable Win, Impressive Grit

Iowa had a tough task at hand Saturday before it stepped on to the field Saturday against #3 Penn State. The challenge was all the more evident after Penn State ran 47 plays in the first half against the Hawks. But the defense stood tough when it had to, and Iowa overcame a nine-point deficit in the fourth quarter to win 24-23 on a 32-yard field goal by Daniel Murray with :01 to play.

The signs were there.


They were in the air.


They were in the loss column.


The signs were there.


Iowa validated it's 2008 season, one that had been defined by close, but not close enough, with a 24-23 win on Daniel Murray's 32-yard field goal with one second remaining to move their record to 6-4 overall, 3-3 in the Big Ten.


Before Iowa kicked off against Penn State in what would eventually go down as one of the most dramatic wins in school history, the signs were there:


-The wind was howling at more than 25mph out of the NW. 

-The temps were below 40 degrees all day, negating Penn State's speed advantage

-The Hawkeyes had lost all four of their games by a combined 12 points.


Iowa fans felt they had a very good team to cheer for, but even some of the faithful wondered about that.


In fact, some of the team members were beginning to wonder.


"It's a measuring stick to see if we are as close as we think we are, or if we are a .500 club, " Iowa linebacker A.J. Edds said at last Tuesday's press conference day.


As Murray's kick soared through the uprights, the 2008 season was saved. People might still wonder years from now what might have been for this team, but they likely won't have to wonder that after another bowl-less season.


Not after this win, and not after the carnage that ensued today in the Big Ten.


Illinois lost to Western Michigan in Detroit, evening their record at 5-5 with a home game against Ohio State and a road game at Northwestern looming.  Seven win teams Minnesota and Northwestern both lost; Minnesota gained just eight first downs and fewer than 200 yards against a Michigan defense that allowed 500+ at Purdue last week and came into the game allowing nearly 400 yards per game.


Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota and Northwestern are all 3-3 in league play.


Should Penn State and Ohio State win out, I remain convinced that two Big Ten teams will get into BCS games, unless Oregon State wins the rest of its games and USC also wins out.


Iowa's chances at an Outback Bowl with just seven wins, after this win against Penn State, are still very much in play.


But more about that later this week, let's not drift too far away from this win too quickly.


Let me start by saying this;  this was a very improbable win for Iowa, speaking strictly from a statistical standpoint.


As in Penn State ran 47 plays in the first half to Iowa's 15; two of those plays for Iowa were punts.  PSU had 203 total yards in the first half to Iowa's 70, and , and half of those yards for Iowa came on the last, mostly meaningless drive before the half.  Penn State had the ball for over 23 minutes.  They had 18 first downs to just five for Iowa, with two of Iowa's first downs coming on that mostly meaningless drive.  PSU was 6 of 9 on third downs, Iowa was 0-2.  Penn State had three scoring drives of more than 10 plays, one of them 19 plays. 


Folks, that was total domination, and PSU was flat controlling the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, save for Iowa's first drive of the game on a short field.  To be honest, I smelled another 2003 Orange Bowl-like second half coming.


Then in the second half, Iowa committed two turnovers that were back breakers.  You can almost say they committed a third turnover on the roughing the punter penalty called on Colin Sandeman with 6:56 remaining in the game and Penn State getting the ball back at the Penn State 43; the Hawks would have had the ball back at the PSU 49.


But in a funny twist of fate, that may have wound up aiding Iowa in the end.


Of course, the Hawks had to stop Penn State, and the Nittany Lions quickly moved the ball down to Iowa 24 yard line and things looked bleak. 


That's when the Iowa defense mounted one last stand, and it was a thing of beauty.  The Hawks pushed PSU back to their 37 and on 3rd and 24, Tyler Sash stepped up with a huge interception, just the third of the season for Darryl Clark, with 3:46 to play in the game.


Colin Sandeman was off the hook, and possibly the Iowa coaching staff for calling for a punt block in that situation, with Penn State punting into the wind.


Iowa still had to start at their own 29 yard line and needed about 50 yards to be comfortably in field goal range.


And Stanzi, who had thrown a bad interception in the second half and fumbled another center-quarterback exchanged, etched a game winning drive for the ages that was also aided by a pass interference call.


Iowa was in a 3rd and 15 situation just two plays after the interception, when Trey Stross was interfered on a pass that he definitely could have made a play on.


Four plays later, Iowa faced a 3rd and 10 when Stanzi found Brandon Myers for a ten yard gain with 1:22 to play.  Stross would find Derrell Johnson-Koulianos two more times on the drive for 10 yard completions, including on 3rd and 6 from the Iowa 25 yard line, that set up a 32-yard field goal attempt.


Kirk Ferentz elected to go with Daniel Murray, whose last field goal attempt came against Pittsburgh, which was blocked, in a one-point Iowa loss.  Perhaps Kirk went with a gut feeling on that one.


It worked; Hawks win 24-23, and the Iowa City Regina product will go down in Hawkeye history alongside the names of Rob Houghtlin, Marv Cook and Chuck Hartlieb.


Here are my thoughts on the game:


RICK STANZI:  It was another up and down day for Stanzi, who continues to get himself into serious trouble by making pre-snap reads and staring down receivers.  His interception was thrown into quadruple coverage, and the only way he could have done that was to decide before the snap that he was going to throw to Andy Brodell, who was just blanketed.  Stanzi and Rob Bruggeman had another center-quarterback exchange issue as well, at least the fourth fumble on the year. 


But like last week, Stanzi showed some brilliance after adversity had punched him in the gut.  To say that this kid is unflappable at this point of the season would be a stretch, because he makes too many mistakes to say that.  But he has come a long way from the Iowa State game where he admitted afterwards that he had been rattled.  He was not rattled today, as Iowa put up 14 first downs in the second half.  Iowa had 202 yards in the second half as well.  Stanzi was 15 of 25 for 171 yards.


SHONN GREENE:  Greene once again topped the 100 yard mark with a 23 carry, 117 yard performance.  The yards were not easy to come by, and Greene was the perfect back for a game in these conditions.  He moved into third place all time for rushing yards in a single season.


THE DEFENSE:  Unofficially, the defense surrendered just 86 yards in the second half after being on the field for nearly the entire first half.  This game will go down in my mind as one of the most gutty defensive performances I have had the pleasure to witness in my lifetime.  Just six first downs for Penn State in the second half, and the ten points that the Nittany Lions scored came on short fields after Iowa turnovers; drives that began at the Iowa 29 and 28 yard lines. 


Penn State entered this game as the 11th most prolific offense in the nation, averaging 459 yards per game, which was #1 in the Big Ten.  So one week after holding the 16th best offense in the nation 120 yards below their average, the Hawks hold the Nittany Lions to just 289 this week.


Iowa holding Penn State to field goals and not touchdowns was huge, too.


Flat phenomenal, especially when you consider they had been on the field for 47 plays in the first half!!!


THIRD DOWNS:  Iowa wound up being 7 of 10 on third downs for the day, something it has not done well in the close losses this season.  That includes 7 of 8 on third downs in the second half.  The only way you can overcome two turnovers and a personal foul call on a punt is by being nearly flawless on third down.


THE CROWD:  Iowa fans, you continue to amaze me, though you shouldn't, because you always bring in.  I picked Iowa to win this game by one point, and I said the crowd would play into the final score.  You did that today, in horrible conditions.  


What a day to be a Hawkeye!

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