They've been labeled a lot of unflattering things, but don't forget to call the Iowa Hawkeyes undefeated. The most charmed team of 2009 is off to its best start in history
This is an article from the Nov. 9, 2009 issue
Another miracle win was in the books, and the chant began to echo around Kinnick Stadium, the redbrick home of the Hawkeyes, the other field of dreams in Iowa. "Nine and Oh!" the faithful boomed as the Iowa players walked off the field after their 42--24 Halloween thriller over Indiana. A yellow-and-black-clad fan in a zombie mask waved a sign that read undead and undefeated. Bon Jovi blared on stadium speakers with what might as well be the theme song of Iowa's improbable perfect season: Livin' on a Prayer.
Only an hour earlier this scene was unimaginable. Only an hour earlier Hawkeyes junior quarterback Ricky Stanzi sat alone on the sideline, his head down. Iowa trailed by 10 points as the third quarter wound down, and Stanzi's stat line read: 10 of 23, 160 yards, five interceptions.
During the TV timeout Iowa punter Ryan Donahue walked over to his quarterback, leaned down and said, "Ready for the greatest quarter of your life?"
Stanzi, who with four picks had just experienced the worst quarter of his life, looked up and replied, "Absolutely."
Less than two minutes into the period, with the Hawkeyes backed up at their eight-yard line, Stanzi rolled right and lofted an intermediate-length pass to sophomore wideout Marvin McNutt, who beat a defender to the sideline and found the field in front of him as open as an Iowa cornfield. Touchdown. On his next snap, barely a minute later, Stanzi faked a handoff, took three steps to his right and delivered a gorgeous bomb to junior wideout Derrell Johnson-Koulianos for a 66-yard touchdown that gave Iowa its first lead, 28--24. So, thanks to consecutive plays that covered 158 yards, the Hawkeyes were on their way to a victory that would extend their winning streak to 13 games (the nation's second longest, behind Florida's 18), preserve their No. 4 BCS ranking and make them the team best positioned to crash the BCS championship game if two of the Big Three—Florida, Texas and Alabama—take a tumble in the season's final month (box, page 53).
Facing a 4--4 Indiana team a week after escaping from East Lansing with a last-play win (the Hawkeyes beat Michigan State on Stanzi's seven-yard TD connection to McNutt as time expired), Iowa needed that pair of clutch bombs from its quarterback, a slew of favorable calls from the officials and—with the Hoosiers leading 21--7 and lining up two yards from another touchdown in the third quarter—a miraculous interception in which the ball ricocheted four times among three players before landing in the hands of Iowa safety Tyler Sash, who dashed 86 yards for a touchdown.
The ugly win will do nothing to quiet the college football cognoscenti who have called the Hawkeyes everything from "frauds" (an ESPN talking head) to "the worst 7--0 team in Big Ten history" (a Detroit News columnist before the win at Michigan State). The victory did confirm one thing about the Hawkeyes, who needed two blocked field goals in the closing seconds to survive against Northern Iowa, have won four games by three points or less, have trailed in all but one game and have rallied from 10-point deficits three times: They are the most charmed team in America.
BCS computers, of course, aren't swayed by style points—or the lack thereof. Nor do the machines take into account margin of victory, which explains why they are giving the Hawkeyes so much more respect than the humans who vote in the USA Today and Harris polls. As of Sunday the Hawkeyes were first or second in five of the six computer rankings the BCS uses, largely because their opponents are a combined 17 games over .500.
"That's nice," says Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, "but if the computers had eyes and could see us play, trust me, they'd be saying, 'Are you kidding me?'"
Iowa bashers, Ferentz isn't looking for your love. In fact, he sees where you're coming from. The idea that the Hawkeyes are one of the country's premier teams—on the same level as the titans they trail from the SEC and the Big 12—is almost absurd to the longtime Iowa coach. "The way I look at it, every year there are eight to 10 teams that are endowed and a group of 30 to 40 teams that make up the next tier," says Ferentz, a Bill Belichick disciple who grew up in western Pennsylvania idolizing Chuck Noll. Asked if the Hawkeyes should be considered an elite team, Ferentz says, "Oh, absolutely not. I never envision us that way."
It's often said that a team takes on the personality of its coach, and in the case of Iowa this couldn't be more true. Like their stone-faced leader, the Hawkeyes are understated and humble, always prepared. Self-promotion isn't in Ferentz's DNA; as the BCS debate heats up, don't expect him to be politicking during halftime at nationally televised games, as Mack Brown and Urban Meyer have in years past. Asked if he'd join the trend of coaches who are turning to Twitter to publicize their programs, Ferentz says, "If you see me with a Twitter account, hit me with a baseball bat. I don't think anyone cares if I have Wheaties or Honey Nut Cheerios."
Actually, people in football-crazed Iowa probably do care. Since Ferentz was hired in late 1998 to replace the legendary Hayden Fry after Iowa's first choice, Bob Stoops, took the job at Oklahoma, he has been under intense scrutiny. The 54-year-old Ferentz, the highest-paid state employee in Iowa at nearly $3 million a year, is often mentioned as an NFL head coaching candidate, but he is a perfect fit in Iowa City. "None of us here were the first choice to the prom," says Ferentz, who after sharing the Big Ten title in 2004 had gone 28--22 entering this season. "That's players and coaches and certainly includes me."
These Hawkeyes are a no-name team, devoid of stars. McNutt, who has emerged as the team's biggest playmaker on offense, began last season as the third-string quarterback. On Saturday true freshman Brandon Wegher ran for 118 yards and scored three TDs while filling in for Adam Robinson, who's out for the year after injuring his ankle against Michigan State. The leader on defense, Pat Angerer, a tattoo-covered, MMA-obsessed senior middle linebacker who lives up to his name with his aggressiveness ("If there's a scuffle in practice, you can be pretty sure Pat's in the middle of it," says Stanzi), was ready to quit football two years ago because of injuries. "Everyone's on the same page," says Angerer. "Everyone's humble, everyone's confident, everyone has a mutual respect. And that all comes from Coach Ferentz."
This year Ferentz says he has listened to his players during games more than ever, and in key moments that has paid off big. As the offense huddled on the sideline during a timeout before that final play at Michigan State, McNutt, who had run a fade route on the previous two plays, told offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe that the Spartans cornerback covering him was lined up on his outside. "I can win on the slant," McNutt said. Stanzi threw a bullet to McNutt as the wideout crossed the goal line and the game clock went to zero. The last time Iowa had run a quick slant like that? "I can't remember," Stanzi says.
No player epitomizes the Hawkeyes' resilience more than Stanzi, who has thrown nearly as many interceptions (13) as touchdown passes (14) yet is 17--3 as a starter and has led six second-half comebacks. His reputation as a clutch quarterback began last season when he led Iowa on two scoring drives in the final 13 minutes of a stunning November upset of No. 3 Penn State. Thus began the Iowa winning streak.
Late nights at the Hawkeyes' football facility, Stanzi and his fellow quarterbacks are often the only ones in the building, hunkered down in a video room breaking down opposing defenses. Stanzi watches two to three hours of football video a day. "It's not the most fun thing to do on a Tuesday night at 11," he says, "but these are the little things Coach Ferentz is always talking about. Sometimes it takes until midnight to understand the looks you'll be facing."
Says Ferentz, "No one works harder [or] is more dedicated than Ricky. He sets the tone for the team."
Two nights before the Indiana game, Stanzi took a break from the cramming and went with four teammates to see the thriller Paranormal Activity. "It was the second time I'd seen it in five days," he says. "I knew what was coming, and still, the end scared the living daylights out of me." That's not unlike the scare the Hawkeyes have given their fans time and again this season.
The last great Iowa team? The Chuck Long--led '85 Hawkeyes, who won the Big Ten title but had their perfect season ended by Ohio State on a rain-soaked November Saturday in Columbus. For this year's Hawkeyes another huge clash at the Horseshoe looms on Nov. 14. Iowa hasn't won in five visits to Columbus since 1991, and a trip to the Rose Bowl could be on the line—perhaps even a spot in the BCS title game in Pasadena on Jan. 7. Even if the Hawkeyes run the table, they'll need some more good fortune if they expect to play for the national championship. "Is our luck going to run out? Maybe," junior left tackle Bryan Bulaga said on Saturday. "But as long as it keeps going, we'll keep riding it. They say it's better to be lucky than good."
If they win out, in fact, the Hawkeyes finally might convince the skeptics that they are both lucky and good.
Iowa tops the list of unbeatens waiting to sneak into the BCS title game should the Big Three falter
Not since 2004, when Auburn was passed over for the BCS championship game in favor of USC and Oklahoma, have more than two teams gone into bowl season undefeated. In fact, in each of the last three years, the teams that played for the title had at least one loss each. But heading into the final month of this regular season, seven teams still haven't lost a game. Chances are, the BCS title game will match an undefeated SEC champion (Florida or Alabama) against Texas, which is rolling through the Big 12. Should at least two of the Big Three stumble, however, the door opens for one of the following teams to jump to No. 2 in the BCS if they remain perfect. (All rankings below are BCS, which uses the USA Today and Harris polls and the rankings calculated by six computers.)
No. 4 Iowa
Of the seven undefeateds, the Hawkeyes are the lowest-ranked in the Harris poll and only sixth-best in the USA Today rankings, but according to the computers used in the BCS formula, they should be No. 2. A victory over Ohio State in the Horseshoe on Nov. 14 would strengthen Iowa's case with voters in the two polls.
No. 5 Cincinnati
With Big East games coming up against West Virginia and No. 13 Pitt, the bad news for the Bearcats is that they have the most difficult remaining schedule among the four teams. The good news is, they should get a nice bump from the computers (which currently rate Cincinnati No. 5) if they run the table. The Dec. 5 trip to Pitt (7--1) looms especially large.
No. 6 TCU
Thanks largely to victories at Clemson and BYU, the Horned Frogs are ranked fourth in the USA Today poll. A Nov. 14 date with No. 16 Utah is pivotal because even if TCU doesn't get to the national title game, a victory would help solidify the Frogs as the program from outside the power conferences most worthy of receiving an at-large BCS bid (and a $17 million payday).
No. 7 Boise State
While the season-opening victory over No. 8 Oregon gets more impressive by the week, the Broncos figure to get penalized by their soft remaining schedule. If there's a trap game, it's the Nov. 27 date with a Nevada team that leads the country in rushing and is averaging 47.2 points during its current five-game winning streak.