Iowa Digs Itself Out of a Pitt on Historic Day
By Sam Kienzle
To see Kirk Ferentz during the first three quarters of Iowa’s game against Pittsburgh last Saturday at Kinnick Stadium, one would have seen an exhausted human being. Arms crossed, he paced the sidelines while exploiting his gum, gob after gob, for the satisfaction of a fresh piece’s fleeting taste. Understandable, as he tried in vain to mask the feculence of a 21-point deficit.The endured exhaustion of a mind strained by the foiled play on the field, coupled with the audible repulsion of 70,000 fans in attendance, the bags under Ferentz’s eyes only grew and sagged.
As a Hawkeye fan at home, watching the game on television, one might have switched the channel out of frustration and an aversion to ugly scenes: deep in a pit at home to a team with a first-year head coach; yards in bunches but few points to show for it. To switch back to the wreckage forty five minutes later, with the band playing “In Heaven There is No Beer,” one’s tired eyes would witness a different scene and get cartoonish in size: triumph on the scoreboard, a vintage, teary-eyed Ferentz shaking hands with his assistants like a freshman Senator, and a resurrected crowd sent on its merry way. It was one of those days on football Saturday in Iowa City. Nay, it was the only day like it in the annals of Iowa football—the biggest comeback in school history.
For almost three quarters, Iowa found itself losing control to the visiting Panther team. There was James Vandenberg’s first interception of the year. There was a 66-yard Tino Sunseri-to-Devin Street touchdown that slapped Hawkeye fans in the face. It stung, mostly because much of Hawkeye Nation had forgotten what it’s like to be bombed on. A second quarter of defensive management but offensive stalling gave way to a halftime show likely tuned out by the presumably indignant, impatient fans. The worst was yet to come.
Pitt drove efficiently, notching its second touchdown and a 17-3 cushion on a deflating, end-around flanker pass from Ronald Jones to Cameron Saddler from thirty yards out. Three minutes of game time later and the bottoming out was complete: Sunseri to Drew Carswell for a four yard touchdown.
Down 24-3, it is not enough for the Iowa players to simply will their way to a win. Sometimes, a comeback is both a total transformation in play by the victors and a self-inflicted razing by the opposing squad. Pitt’s erosion began after its final touchdown, and incidentally its joyous peak of the day, bouncing the ball out of bounds after the ensuing kickoff and giving Iowa great field position and a glimmer of hope. The twenty-two yard Keenan Davis catch, overturned to a completion after replay review, continued a slow momentum build in the final minutes of the third quarter.
Fast forward past Kevonte Martin-Manley’s first clutch grab of the day, Vandenberg’s one yard sneak, and Pitt’s thwarted touchdown-turned-field goal, and Vandenberg’s Hawkeyes still faced a muddy climb to daylight, but the hum of the crowd seemed to give a direct injection into the Hawkeye offense, shifting from its typical slow gear play selection to a quick-paced rhythm that saw Zach Derby, Marcus Coker, Keenan Davis, Marvin McNutt, and Kevonte Martin-Manley make sometimes acrobatic, sometimes lengthy catches from Vandenberg like a fast-break basketball offense. Echoing Pittsburgh’s head coach Todd Graham, it really did happen so fast and furiously that most fans, including myself, watched with mouths open and brains stuck in minute-by-minute mode, unable to completely shake the discontent from the previous three quarters until the band finally played “In Heaven There is No Beer.”
With the receivers playing fearlessly, the defense making stops while sending chills into the bullies, and special teams doing everything possible to give the team an advantage (any advantage), it wouldn’t have been enough for James Vandenberg to act as a mere game manager. Outscoring an opponent 28-3 over the game’s final quarter and change takes some timely possessions and a quarterback as cool as a cucumber with a trebuchet for an arm. Oh, and Micah Hyde’s leaping interception—the sixth of his short career—to clinch the game on a day heavy with emotion. That helps, too.
So, not even a fourth of the way through the season, the Hawks grip a 2-1 record with white knuckles and plenty of “Been there, done that” spirit. This is a game-by-game team until the defense starts playing with more consistency, especially in the secondary. Insight Bowl MVP Marcus Coker could only muster 86 yards on 23 attempts, yet Hawkdom witnessed Vandenberg unleash 399 yards passing and four total touchdowns to become the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week. Amid all the uncertainty and volatility thus far, one thing is concrete: at least we know they’re capable.