Glass half full

Second-guessing unnecessarily diminishes Hawks' heroic effort

AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

Iowa running back Akrum Wadley scores against Penn State on Saturday night at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

AP Photo/Jeff Roberson Iowa running back Akrum Wadley scores against Penn State on Saturday night at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

IOWA CITY — Crestfallen Hawkeyes spent all night Saturday and most of the day Sunday grumbling ”what if” scenarios to themselves over and over again.

A walk-off loss to the fourth-ranked team in the nation in what amounted to a picture-perfect home environment will do that to a die-hard fanbase. It’s a painful — albeit natural — way to cope.

What if Iowa’s offense had produced enough juice to keep its defense from being completely spent on the back-breaking final drive?

What if an awkward pitch play to Akrum Wadley hadn’t resulted in a first-quarter safety?

What if Miguel Recinos’ 36-yard field goal hadn’t been blocked early in the final period?

What if the Hawks had stopped Penn State on 4th down with 50 seconds left near midfield?

What if Amani Hooker’s fingers were just a little longer, or his vertical an inch higher, on Penn State’s game-winning touchdown pass?

The list goes on and on.

A dramatic victory over the mighty Nittany Lions may have flirted with the No. 2 spot on the all-time Kinnick Stadium hit list — ahead of Penn State 2008 or Michigan 2016, and behind only Michigan 1985.

Instead, one play — a 4th-down bullet that zoomed just over Hooker and into the waiting arms of Juwan Johnson in the middle of the end zone — turned jubilation and celebration into despondence and frustration.

The positive takeaways tend to get lost in the shuffle after rock-kickers like this. It’s easy to lose perspective and forget the fact that the most pollyannic Hawkeyes were just hoping for a competitive game — and rightfully so — four hours earlier. I’ve even heard a few disappointed Iowa supporters mutter, ”I’d rather see them lose by three touchdowns than get beat like that.”

Don’t go there.

This Penn State squad is rated fourth for a reason. The Nittany Lions returned 17 starters from their Big Ten championship team of a year ago — you know, the one that beat Iowa by 27 points in Happy Valley on their way to the Rose Bowl. They’ve won 12 consecutive regular-season contests dating back to Sept. 24, 2016. And let’s be honest: Saquon Barkley is the most mesmerizing player we’ve seen in this conference — if not the entire country — in years. That was an NFL-ready player dominating a field full of college kids on Saturday night.

Meanwhile, just over a month ago, Iowa hadn’t received a single Top-25 vote. In fact, even before Saturday, the Hawkeyes had only two despite sporting a 3-0 record. They were breaking in a new quarterback. Questionable, inexperienced receiving corps. Revamped secondary. Different offensive line. Unseasoned kicker. Rookie offensive coordinator. Four NFL Draft picks off the board.

And yet, there they were: 13-point underdog, badly outgained in total yardage and plays, gutting out what could have been another magical, improbable Kinnick memory. It took sheer greatness to crash the party.

In a way, Saturday night was a microcosm of the Kirk Ferentz era. Expectations went from low, to reasonable, to exciting, to borderline illogical. Disappointing moments and seasons? Sure. But only relative to the idea that Iowa can be this stout and competitive against conference bluebloods year after year after year.

Ferentz has been labeled boring, overpaid and even predictable by his detractors. It becomes harder and harder to appreciate the kind of program he inherited 19 long seasons ago, and just how difficult it is to stay relevant — the Hawkeyes are well on their way to a 15th winning campaign in the last 17 years — at a school like Iowa and in a conference like the Big Ten for basically two full decades.

The near-miss against Penn State is a reminder of this program’s competitive spirit, not a depressing tale of what might have been. Football teams will always be measured by their record first and foremost, true, but context is critical. Keep that in mind while the sting of this setback is still poking at your pessimism. It should help ease the pain and whisk the exasperation away.

Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached afternoons and evenings at 1-800-622-6613, by e-mail at sports@messengernews.net, or on Twitter @MessengerSports

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