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Keeler: What-ifs hard to stomach after wrenching loss

[ 15 ] October 23, 2010 |

Iowa City, Ia. — They are their own worst enemy. That’s what eats you up from the inside, nibble by nibble. Wisconsin 31, Iowa 30 was the latest example, a failure of special teams, a failure of clock management, a comedy — nay, tragedy — of self-inflicted wounds and what-ifs.

What if quarterback Ricky Stanzi gets a chance to spike the ball, as he seemed to be pleading to do, with 12 seconds left and first down at the Wisconsin 39-yard line?

“Coach was wanting to take a timeout,” Stanzi said Saturday after Iowa dipped to 5-2, 2-1 in Big Ten play. “We kind of had a plan going in and we kind of had a switch of ideas. If it works out, it’s not even a question, but when it doesn’t, you start pointing fingers at certain plays.”

What if the Hawkeyes have that timeout in their pocket after his desperation flip to Adam Robinson is snuffed for a short gain? What if the game doesn’t end there, a mess of rain, confusion and heartbreak?

Iowa's Marvin McNutt tries to pull in a pass while Wisconsin's Niles Brinkley (29) defends. (Christopher Gannon/The Register)

“We wanted to burn the timeout and just go from there. I guess we could have gone the other way. Might’ve saved us 2 seconds,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “I don’t think that was exactly the turning point in the game.”

No? OK, then what about this: What if that Mike Meyer extra point in the first half isn’t blocked by Wisconsin end J.J. Watt, making the Hawkeyes’ first lead 7-3 instead of 6-3?

“It ends up being the game,” Badgers coach Bret Bielema offered.

What if a second-quarter field-goal snap isn’t too high for the reach of holder Ryan Donahue, who had to eat the ball and turn it over on downs at the Wisconsin 17-yard line? What if those four kicking points are back on the scoreboard?

“Special teams really hurt us today,” Ferentz continued. “Between that and penalties, that’s not a good thing.”

Sometimes the difference between a good season and a great one is four points. Four points here, 12 seconds there. With five Big Ten games yet to play, the Rose Bowl bandwagon isn’t wrecked, by any stretch, but it’s got a fairly nasty dent in the back fender. And with 8-0 Michigan State coming to town next, doubts about the play-calling, the kicking game, and the pass defense are creeping back into the collective psyche of a wounded fan base.

While we’re on the subject, what if Iowa’s defensive front seven isn’t getting tossed around like a shrimp salad? End Adrian Clayborn was visibly upset after the game, and with good reason. Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien was surgical (20-for-26 passing), while tailbacks John Clay and Montee Ball combined for three rushing touchdowns.

What if the Hawkeyes aren’t caught with their pants down on fourth-and-4 at the Wisconsin 26 midway through the fourth quarter? What if somebody gets a paw on Badgers punter Brad Nortman, who rumbled untouched, up the middle, for a 17-yard gain?

What if Wisconsin isn’t a perfect 3-for-3 on fourth down — two of those conversions coming on the Badgers’ final, game-winning drive?

“When you lose a game like this, there are a lot of things you can look at, a lot of different plays,” Ferentz said, “but it’s a team loss.”

Yes. Yes it was. Tip your cap to Wisconsin, which turned up with nostrils flaring and proved that the Ohio State pelt on Bielema’s wall was no fluke. Tip your cap to Stanzi, who matched Tolzien, strike for strike, connecting on 25-of-37 throws and three scores.

It was a whale of a tilt, in hindsight, as much as it stings right now. Eight lead changes. Nearly 725 yards of total offense combined. Two programs that are mirror images of their neighbor. Except that one came to win. The other couldn’t get out of its own way.

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football

About Sean Keeler: Sean Keeler has been a sports columnist at The Des Moines Register since 2002. Got a story tip, comment, complaint? E-mail him at skeeler@dmreg.com. You can follow him on twitter at twitter.com/seankeeler or on Facebook at facebook.com/smkeeler. View author profile.

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