Wed Jan 06 01:38am EST
Iowa 24, Georgia Tech 14. For a brief window in the third and fourth quarters, it looked like we may be in store for some kind of bizarro edition of the Hawkeyes -- after Georgia Tech's only sustained drive of the night cut the Hawks' lead to a field goal early in the fourth quarter, team that specialized in ripping victory from defeat in the final frame all season was suddenly in danger of blowing a roaring 14-0 start down the stretch.
Once the burgeoning comeback bid was successfully put down, though, the picture of the same low-key, workmanlike Iowa we'd come to know through the regular season emerged intact. Freshman running backs Adam Robinson and Brandon Wegher took hatchets to the clock with big runs in the fourth quarter, just as they had to close out the upset at Penn State in September. Defensive end Adrian Clayborn was the most visible, dominant playmaker on either side of the ball, just as he was throughout the last month-and-a-half of Big Ten play. Wildcard quarterback Ricky Stanzi was erratic enough to throw an interception that Tech returned for its only first half touchdown, but also consistent enough at the same time to put together four scoring drives of at least 50 yards in another winning effort -- just as he'd managed in 12 straight starts dating back to 2008 before going down with a knee injury against Northwestern in November. When he starts and finishes, the Manzi has now taken 13 in a row without a really exceptional performance in any of them.
But mostly, it was the same Hawkeye defense, a top-10 unit that clamped down on Tech's prolific running game with a fundamentally sound tenacity only LSU in the 2008 Chick-Fil-A Bowl has come close to matching against Tech since Paul Johnson took the plastic off the triple option scheme last year. The ACC's most dynamic, highest-scoring attack accounted for all of one first down in the first half and punted as many times (9) as it had in the previous six games combined.
The Jackets' total output -- 14 points (half of them courtesy of the defense's INT return) on just 155 total yards -- was their worst of the season by both measures, making them the 13th straight offense in 13 games against Iowa to fall short of their season averages in both categories. The same defense that rocked Penn State's world in Happy Valley in September quietly put the same hurt on every offense it faced.
Not that Georgia Tech looked particularly in sync regardless of what Iowa was doing, even after making a few adjustments and getting its act together in the third and early fourth quarters, when the Jackets drove for a touchdown to cut the Hawkeye lead to 17-14. Whatever comeback threat Tech might have presented at that point, it promptly withdrew its stinger by a) Having Josh Nesbitt (who had completed one of three passes over the first three-and-a-half quarters but had found a rhythm on the option) throw from near his own goal line. That pass was inevitably picked off, followed moments later by b) Some crossed circuits in running back Jonathan Dwyer's brain instructing him to essentially run backwards into his own end zone on the first play of the Jackets' next drive, where he narrowly avoided a safety to set up an impossible 2nd-and-21 situation from the one-yard-line. Tech was forced to punt, and Wegher added the Hawkeyes' icing touchdown four minutes later.
But the point is that no one looked particularly in sync against Iowa all year, even when it seemed like the Hawkeyes were still groping for some traction of their own. Tonight may be the closest they came to a real "knockout" game against a good team, which isn't saying much. But it's very possible that Stanzi's absence against Northwestern and Ohio State could have spelled the difference between the 11-2 finish the Hawkeyes earned tonight and a perfect regular season. As it stands, an injury-plagued, drama-filled 2009 may have been Kirk Ferentz's best coaching job, and this bunch has more than earned its place alongside the top-10 teams from 2002, 1991 and 1985 as the best Iowa outfits of the last 50 years.