Howe: Chemistry Key to Hawks' Success

It appears that strong chemistry has returned to the Iowa locker room have a two-year layoff. Despite players losing jobs and being sent to the bench, there haven't been any disruptions to the team goal. That will be tested again as the kicker position is again up for grabs. columnist Rob Howe discusses this angle in this opinion piece.

Kirk Ferentz is fond of saying that he's not sure he can define chemistry but he knows you need it to be successful in football. His Hawkeyes have it this season.

It explains why Iowa was able to battle through four paper-thin losses this season and find a way to upset No. 3 Penn State, 24-23, on Saturday. Lesser people, lesser teams would have folded.

Former Quarterback Drew Tate felt that the 2006 Iowa team had great chemistry. He believed that. It wasn't true. Ferentz didn't think so. He called them fat cats.

The Hawkeyes from 2000-2005 had chemistry from my vantage point. That wasn't there the last two seasons.

Though only speculation, I've heard it from enough people to believe there is some truth to there being uneasiness at times in the Hawkeye locker room. I've heard there was a rub between upper and lower classmen and a lack of respect for coaches. I don't know it to be first-hand truth, but something was amiss.

The off-of-the-field issues certainly contributed to less-than-ideal chemistry. That's not to say there were a bunch of hooligans running around the football complex. It was probably a small percentage. But that's often all it takes to disrupt the program.

I'm also not saying the seniors were poor at leading in those years. Some things were probably too big to guide players through. But I've been very comfortable in saying this season's seniors, although a small group, has done a great job.

Yes, work remains. As Seth Olsen told me on Saturday, unless Iowa wins the last two games of the regular season, the Penn State is meaningless. That might have been a bit over the top, but it was the right approach.

I look at the position battles that have taken place this year - and are still being contested - and it hasn't brought down this group. From the people with whom I've spoken, Jake Christensen has been a great teammate since losing his starting quarterback job to Rick Stanzi earlier this season.

The same could be said for Rafael Eubanks, Jacody Coleman, Darrell-Johnson Koulianos, Trey Stross, Jeff Tarpinian, Jordan Bernstine and Daniel Murray. It's a group that has some starters who lost jobs or were projected No. 1s going into summer camp that didn't get there. They've moved ahead and helped the team where they can.

"You want to play, but at the same time if you see someone playing at a higher level you have to accept it," said center Rob Bruggeman, who beat out Eubanks for the starting spot despite the latter owning it the last two seasons. "You want to win. On Saturdays, I guarantee you that there's not really a thought of who's out there playing. You just want to win and do whatever you can for the team."

Players and coaches say that all over the country every week. It's just not always true. There's backstabbing and resentfulness that takes down lesser men.

"In general, we just want to win," Murray said. "Last year, the disappointment of just losing, not people not getting awards or not playing enough, it was just the fact that we didn't make a bowl game. The lifting definitely took a toll on us over the winter break.

"It just seems that everyone has banded together and realized this is about us. The coaches preached that. You can't just think about yourself. It's the team goal first. And players have shown that it's the team first before the players."

During Saturday's memorable win against the Nittany Lions, there were at least two great examples of guys being team players - Murray and Johnson-Koulianos. Those guys suffered through some tough moments this season only two wear hero hats in the biggest victory of the last four seasons.

Johnson-Koulianos lost his starting job two weeks ago. He was prohibited by Ferentz from speaking to the media at Tuesday press conferences because he wore sun glasses to one of them. In the three games before Penn State, he had a combined five catches for 51 yards. On Saturday, he caught seven balls for 89 yards, including a huge 27-yard TD grab in the third quarter.

And then there was Murray. He hadn't attempted a field goal for five weeks. Then, he hits a historic 31-yarder to provide the difference against the Nittany Lions. Ferentz gave him a shot even though Trent Mossbrucker had knocked 13 of 15 through the uprights.

Ferentz on Tuesday said that he was unsure who his field goal kicker would be this week against Purdue.

"I really don't know what we're going to do," Ferentz said. "We'll see how the week goes. The good news is that we have confidence in both. We went from a situation not knowing where we were at in the spring, to feeling confident right now that both guys play an important role. I threw a depth chart out here, but flip a coin. I think we're in good shape right now."

You have to hope that Mossbrucker approaches this thing in the same way as some of his teammates did. Murray lost his gig and kept his head in his enough to kick one under huge pressure on Saturday.

A few of the players intimated and I've heard from other sources that Mossbrucker struggled in practice last week. He also was inconsistent during pregame and halftime warm-ups against Penn State. I like the fact that Ferentz took that into consideration and went with a hunch (or his gut).

"That's the world I live in," Ferentz said. "If you're charged with making decisions, you make them and move on. I'm not saying there aren't moments where you beat yourself up a bit, but you can't do that for too long, otherwise you know you're going to have a hard time making decisions, that's how it worked. I've blown my share of calls, that's for sure. Recently and long-term. You do what you do. "

There's a part of me cringing at the thought of going into Week 11 with an unsettled kicker situation. That uneasiness is heightened when thinking about Iowa losing four games by a combined 12 points and getting its biggest win by a point.

"For me, it's nice to hear that I can have a chance again," Murray said. "But Trent has done a wonderful job. He hasn't done anything wrong. It's just who performs better during the week. (Ferentz) just wants to win games, too. If I don't get it and Trent gets it, I'll kick off and be fine with it if we win the game.

"Even of Trent doesn't perform as well, I know he has the right mindset. We just want to help the team out. Even kicking wise, it helps us perform consistently. You can get lackadaisical during a season if you don't really get pushed. He's just trying to keep us pushing and getting better."

Mossbrucker called Murray Monday night to congratulate him on his game-winning field goal.

"I just told him that I think he's going to get his opportunity eventually here," Murray said. "It's kind of like with me, I didn't know I was going to get the opportunity. I just told him he has to continue to improve and think about the team.

"He's going to kick a lot of field goals in his career. He's going to be a good player."

So, we move into the home stretch hoping that the unselfishness displayed so far this year can continue into the future. It's a big part of chemistry. It's a big part of Iowa football when it's successful.

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