Howe: Hawkeyes Finally Break Through

After suffering through a series of close losses this season, Iowa finally turned the tables in a big way on Saturday. The Hawkeyes knocked off No. 3 Penn State at Kinnick Stadium. Columnist Rob Howe writes about the significance of the upset and the resiliency of the team in this opinion piece.

IOWA CITY, Iowa - Finally.

After four heartbreaking losses in the last six games, Iowa finally broke through. And the sound of this long-awaited victory reverberated through the college football world.

The Big Ten's loss is the Hawkeyes' gain. They knocked off the conference's hope for national championship game representation. Third-ranked Penn State left town with a 24-23 loss and shattered dreams. Iowa removed a gorilla from its back.

"We needed this one bad," Hawkeye running back Shonn Green said. "We had those close losses early in the season. We finally got over the hump in this game. It means a lot."

It would be tough to measure the exact significance of Saturday's victory, one that pushed the Iowa to 6-4. It had lost four games by a total of 12 points, including a 27-24 decision at Illinois last week on a late field goal. It hadn't beaten a team with a winning record this season and its last triumph this impressive was when it took out defending national champion LSU in the 2005 Capital One Bowl.

The national story coming out of Kinnick Saturday was that mighty Penn State bowed out of the big picture. But Iowa snatched the sidebar by showing the nation for the first time in almost four years that they might be relevant again on a national basis.

Once the mass of humanity clear ed off the Kinnick turf and things settled down in the postgame, it was tough not to think about what might have been. It showed that this Iowa team was good, as many of us had suspected. It proved that two, three, four more wins this season were surely possible had things broke its way or it made its breaks at least a few times before Saturday.

But maybe, just maybe, those things needed to happen for the Hawkeyes to pull off this stunner. Maybe the frustration accumulated to the point where they weren't going to let victory escape them again. Maybe experiencing consistent frustration pulled them through.

Darrell Johnson-Koulianos, who broke out of a funk on Saturday, was asked after the game how devastating another close loss would have been. His answer didn't acknowledge that possibility.

"So, you never let that thought enter your mind?" the reporter asked.

"No sir," the receiver said with a smile.

That was an amazing approach when you consider the punches to the rib cage they've taken this season. They take the ball with less than four minutes to go in the game, trailing the No. 3 team in the country by two points and they don't let the thought of "Oh, no, here we go again" disrupt their game-winning drive.

"We knew we were going to be in a situation like that," Johnson-Koulianos said. "We had an opportunity, but what were we going to do with it? We understood the situation we were in. We had the game in our hands as long as we executed."

Iowa began the decisive march at its own 29 with 3:44 on the clock. It started with a sack of quarterback Ricky Stanzi, who himself had struggled through another tough day with two turnovers. He had committed seven of those in the three losses in which he started.

On second down, Greene dropped a pass, setting up third and 15. Stanzi floated the ball down the field to Trey Stross, but it fell incomplete. A flag appeared on the play and Penn State was whistled for pass interference. While the call appeared accurate on replay, it still represented a break Iowa just hasn't seen go its way every often in 2008, and it seemed to breathe life into the comeback effort.

"That was huge for us," Johnson-Koulianos said. "That was a great job on Trey's part by going after the ball in a double-coverage situation to create the opportunity for a pass interference. Hats off to Trey. That was a huge play for us."

The Hawkeyes faced a third and 10 at midfield moments later, and Stanzi connected with Brandon Myers for their second first down hookup on the drive. He then hit Johnson-Koulianos with a pass that set Iowa up with a first and 10 at the PSU 29. The home team ran Greene for a couple of two-yard gains that brought up a third and six at the 25 with :57 on the clock.

Iowa took a timeout and most onlookers probably figured, Penn State included, that it would run Greene one more time to the middle of the field to set up the field goal. Wrong. Stanzi rolled out and connected with Johnson-Koulianos again for 10 yards and a first down at the 15.

The play was surprising for the usually conservative Hawkeyes. Offensive Coordinator Ken O'Keefe put himself back in the good graces of message board posters and callers to radio talk shows (for now). It just seemed like the players and coaches believed in each other.

Greene then ran two more times for a total of one yard and the Hawkeyes called timeout with :06 on the clock. The expectation was for freshman kicker Trent Mossbrucker to trot out for a 31-yard attempt. Wrong again.

Head Coach Kirk Ferentz was roasted pretty good for a "gut feeling" he had to stick with former starting quarterback Jake Christensen in a loss at Pittsburgh earlier this season. This time, it told him to go with sophomore kicker Daniel Murray, who lost the starting place kicking job to Mossbrucker after missing a kick at Pittsburgh.

"We leaned more towards experience than anything else," Ferentz said of the decision. "We're so high on Trent. Trent is going to be a tremendous football player. He's going to have some great moments here, too. But it was a tough situation, and it was a little bit tricky out there and we just leaned towards experience."

Ferentz's hunch paid off this time. Murray knocked it through before running to midfield and completing a victory slide that would have made Brandi Chastain proud.

"I knew eventually I'd probably get a shot," Murray said. "I didn't know it would be a game-winner, but I'm just glad they could put me out there. I kept hoping and hoping that I would get my chance. I can only thank the coaches so much for giving me the opportunity to go out there. That's all I could ever ask for."

So, the worst thing that came out of Saturday was a possible kicker controversy. Not too shabby.

While Iowa did turn the ball over a couple of times and committed some untimely penalties, areas that have plagued them this season, they improved greatly in one key area - third-down conversions on offense. The Hawkeyes cashed in on seven of 10 opportunities.

"Nobody on the team thought it was going to fall apart (when Iowa made mistakes)," offensive lineman Seth Olsen said. "I know people maybe watching in the stands or in the (press) box maybe thought it was going to fall apart. At no point of the season did we feel like it was going to fall apart."

Several members of the team said that last week's loss at rival Illinois really served as motivation to get back up off the ground and finish the season strong. And Saturday's move to six wins didn't signal relief for anybody in the Iowa locker room after missing the postseason a year ago with that total.

"Last year proved that six wins doesn't get you into a bowl game," defensive tackle Mitch King said. "We have to win one more, maybe two, so we have to keep fighting and plugging away."

It's tough to imagine that this Hawkeye team will let up. It certainly is susceptible to mistakes, as we saw on Saturday, but its intestinal fortitude carry them, as we also learned.

"This will justify us as a good team if we finish strong in the last two weeks," Olsen said. "If we don't win the last two, then we're just a flash in the pan. If we walk away with two losses, what was the point of this game?"

Two more wins, and Iowa has a realistic shot to be playing in January for the first time since it's four-year run into that month ended in ‘05. That certainly would be relevant for the program that fell off the national map.

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