January 6, 2010

Defense carries Iowa to watershed victory

MIAMI - Forgive Kirk Ferentz for getting a little flustered. This is relatively new territory for Iowa and its coach.

A BCS bowl appearance, a double-digit win season, representing a resurgent Big Ten - it all seems a little strange for the Hawkeyes.

Ferentz erred in praising Wake Forest, not Georgia Tech, for being such a quality Orange Bowl opponent after Iowa's 24-14 victory Tuesday night. Despite the amusing slip up, it's clear Ferentz, his staff and his players did their homework and were prepared. The Hawkeyes scored one of the biggest bowl wins in school history and claimed another postseason victory for the Big Ten the same way they had won 10 regular-season games - with clenched teeth and white knuckles.

In true Iowa fashion, nothing came easy. The final margin was comfortable on the scoreboard, and Iowa had a clear statistical advantage, but the Hawkeyes still had to sweat out the coldest Orange Bowl (49 degrees at kickoff) in history.

"For us, this is a rout," Ferentz said. "We were all breathing a sigh of relief."

It was Iowa's best bowl win in more than 50 years. Iowa defeated California 38-12 in the Rose Bowl following the 1958 season, the last time the school had a "major" bowl victory.

As good as this season was, the Hawkeyes still have to wonder what could have been; just 10 points separated Iowa from an undefeated record. The Hawkeyes lost by seven to Northwestern in a game in which starting quarterback Ricky Stanzi went out with an injury, then lost by three in overtime the next week at Ohio State with a backup quarterback.

Granted, only eight points separated Iowa from disaster, too. That's the combined margin of victory over Northern Iowa, Arkansas State, Michigan and Michigan State during the Hawkeyes' 9-0 start.

Iowa dominated for the most part Tuesday - the Hawkeyes outgained Tech 403-155. But the Hawkeyes didn't put the game away until the final two minutes, when freshman running back Brandon Wegher scored to give Iowa the final margin.

Like so many Iowa games this season, it wasn't always pretty, but the defense looked as if it had used every minute over the past month to prepare for Georgia Tech's usually vexing triple option.

In the first half, Iowa swarmed quarterback Josh Nesbitt. He couldn't get the ball to his playmakers in the run game. And when he dropped back to pass, he threw an interception and was sacked three times.

"I can't imagine preparing for these guys in a week," Iowa linebacker Pat Angerer said. "We put so many things in at the last minute and changed so many things."

Georgia Tech hadn't punted in nine consecutive quarters going into the game, partly because of the effectiveness of the offense and partly because of coach Paul Johnson's penchant for gambling on fourth down. Tuesday, Iowa forced the Yellow Jackets to punt on their first six possessions. Defensive end Adrian Clayborn was the MVP with nine tackles and two sacks, but Iowa's linebackers and its interior linemen set the tone.

"When you run the option like this, when you have a defensive end who has linebackers playing the way they were behind him, it really frees him up to make a lot of plays," Georgia Tech center Sean Bedford said. "The way they flowed and got off blocks, it canceled a lot of our options and freed him up to make some plays."

The performance means fans in Iowa City will wake up Wednesday feeling good about the Hawkeyes - and Big Ten fans throughout the country will be happy, as well. Conference commissioner Jim Delany probably has a spring in his step, too.

The Big Ten finished 4-3 in bowls, marking the first time since the 2002 season the conference finished above .500 in the postseason. That season, Ohio State upset Miami for the national championship; Iowa, coincidentally, lost the Orange Bowl to USC that season.

More important than the overall record, though, is that the Big Ten has repaired its image on the big stage. The Big Ten knows all too well that performances in BCS games can make or break the perception of a conference. After losing six consecutive BCS games, including two national championship matchups, the Big Ten won both of its BCS contests this season - and both were against conference champions.

In addition, as cold air drifted into the state of Florida, the Big Ten's non-BCS teams swept the Orlando bowls against higher-ranked opponents. BCS No. 13 Penn State defeated No. 12 LSU in the Capital One, and No. 25 Wisconsin defeated No. 15 Miami in the Champs Sports.

All told, Big Ten teams went 4-0 in bowls involving ranked opponents. Though the league was 0-3 in bowls against unranked opponents, none of those defeats qualify as embarrassing.

Any questions detractors had about the top teams in the Big Ten, Iowa and Ohio State answered in a span of five days.

Is the Big Ten behind the times? After the Buckeyes shut down Oregon's state-of-the art spread in the Rose Bowl, the Hawkeyes stifled Georgia Tech's lethal option-based offense.

What about speed and talent in the trenches? Clayborn was dominant in the first half, and Derrick Morgan - Georgia Tech's star pass rusher - wasn't much of a factor.

Are Big Ten teams a step too slow? Tony Moeaki - he's a tight end, remember - outran Georgia Tech defenders for about 50 yards to set up Iowa's first score of the game.

"It's way too easy to generalize," Ferentz said. "Maybe this will put some of those 'theories' to rest for at least six more months [or] four more months."

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.


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