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Harty: Big Game usually fizzles more than sizzles

[ 0 ] September 10, 2013 |

Here we go again.

The annual football showdown between Iowa and Iowa State is just four days away, which means outside of caring for family members, pets and respecting the law, nothing else really matters.

This game is a chance for our state to rejoice over having two BCS teams from two different conferences for which to cheer, while other Midwestern states with bigger populations such as Minnesota, Missouri, and Wisconsin only have one BCS team, and others like Michigan, Kansas and Illinois have two, but in each case, from the same conference.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz brought up that fact to reporters at his weekly news gathering Tuesday.

“The unique part about it is we’re from two separate conferences, which there are a lot of great rivalries around the country, but I don’t know how many there are of this category where you have two conferences represented,” Ferentz said. “So it makes it a little bit more unique.”

Iowa versus Iowa State has affectionately been called the Big Game for years, and we in the media treat it each year like the first moon landing, with the next must-see event scheduled for 5 p.m. Saturday in Ames.

The problem is that the Big Game usually turns into the Big Lame.

OK, there was the triple-overtime thriller in 2011 from which Iowa State escaped with a 44-41 victory in Ames; and the 2002 game that saw the Seneca Wallace-led Cyclones overcome a 17-point halftime deficit to win 36-31 at Kinnick Stadium against a Brad Banks-led Iowa team that would go on to finish undefeated in the Big Ten and 11-2 overall that season.

But more times than not, the Big Game fails to deliver from an entertainment standpoint, including last season’s cure for insomnia — a 9-6 Iowa State victory at Kinnick Stadium — and the games in 2009 and 2010 in which Iowa combined to outscore the Cyclones 70-10 in two lopsided victories.

And who can forget the instant classic that unfolded at Kinnick Stadium in 2008, with Iowa prevailing 17-5? Probably everybody not named Andy Brodell, whose 81-yard punt return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter is about all there was worth remembering from that game.

The 1990s produced more duds than gems, although it was the decade in which Iowa State finally broke from Iowa’s stranglehold by ending a 15-game losing streak with a 27-9 victory at Kinnick Stadium. But even that game left much to be desired, mostly because Iowa looked overmatched for a change.

That game also served as a warning of things to come as Iowa went on to finish 3-8 in what proved to be Hayden Fry’s last season as coach in 1998.

Dan McCarney hit his peak as the Iowa State coach at the same time that Iowa hit rock bottom during the transition from Fry to his predecessor Kirk Ferentz.

The 1980s did little to help the rivalry’s reputation, but plenty to help Fry’s. The Cyclones couldn’t keep pace with Iowa’s rise to glory under Fry, which hit its peak midway through the decade.

Hawkeye fans took beating the Cyclones for granted in the mid-to-late 1980s and who could blame them? Iowa won five consecutive games from 1983-87 by a combined margin of 258-50.

Those days are long gone with Iowa State having defeated Iowa nine of the last 16 times. The Big Game has stayed competitive since Iowa State’s historic breakthrough 15 years ago. It just hasn’t had much appeal beyond Iowa’s borders because the games usually are uneventful and because at least one team is almost always irrelevant nationally, which is a nicer way of saying bad.

Both of the current teams were irrelevant when the 2013 season started and have done nothing to change that perception. The Cyclones certainly didn’t bring energy to the Big Game by losing to Northern Iowa 28-20 in the season opener, nor has Iowa helped the Big Game’s cause by splitting with Northern Illinois and Missouri State in its first two games.

Nobody can say with any certainty why the Iowa-Iowa State rivalry fizzles more than sizzles, but perhaps it’s because both teams rarely have been good at the same time. It has happened so infrequently that you start to accept the notion that Iowa and Iowa State can’t excel in football simultaneously.

Iowa has had seven double-digit win seasons; four under Ferentz and three under Fry. In those same seven seasons, Iowa State finished with a losing record four times, with a .500 record once and with five and six losses in the two other seasons.

Iowa State won a school-record nine games under McCarney in 2000, including a 24-14 victory over a rebuilding Iowa squad that finished 3-9.

The Cyclones also won eight games in three consecutive seasons under Earle Bruce from 1976-78, a stretch that helped Bruce get hired for his dream job at Ohio State in 1979.

Iowa, on the other hand, was mired in a near two-decade long non-winning streak that lasted throughout the 1970s.

When Iowa and Iowa State finally renewed their rivalry in 1977 after a 43-year separation, the hype far exceeded the performance on the field at Kinnick Stadium. Iowa prevailed 12-10 behind a long touchdown run by halfback Dennis Mosley. It was considered an upset at the time because Iowa State was coming off an eight-win season in 1976 and would go on to win eight games in 1977, while Iowa finished 5-6 in 1976 and 1977.

“That was a terrible game that turned out to be exciting,” said Phil Haddy, who retired as the Iowa Sports Information Director in 2011, a position he held for nearly two decades. “The atmosphere was so electric in the stadium and both teams were so nervous that they were going to make a mistake that they both played far under their capabilities.”

“I think to some extent the players are trying so hard that they maybe don’t perform up to their (potential), not that they don’t try hard all the time. But this game has a little special meaning for everybody, the bragging rights. It’s an important game for everybody in the state.”

As for the current situation, the question isn’t whether both teams can be good at the same time, but rather if both teams can avoid being bad at the same time.

So maybe desperation is just what the rivalry needs because it certainly needs something.

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football

About Pat Harty: Columnist Pat Harty has been covering the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Press-Citizen since 1991. Originally from Des Moines, he currently writes columns and covers Hawkeye men's basketball for Hawk Central. View author profile.

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