Road to Rose Bowl, or BCS Championship, Runs Through Iowa
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- People will come.
America, or at least the Big Ten, will come to Iowa this fall. It will come to Iowa, specifically to Iowa City (if you really want to zoom in, to Kinnick Stadium) and it will do so for the same reason that both political parties invade the state every four years: to pick a national candidate.
Presidential politics has the Iowa caucuses. The Big Ten championship has Iowa's remaining home football schedule. On Saturday, the Hawkeyes won 38-28 at Michigan to move to 5-1 halfway through their season. Coach Kirk Ferentz's team has three home games remaining, and locals with season tickets must be eyeing the upcoming Saturdays wondering how they came to be so fortunate.
The remaining home schedule is a veritable cornucopia, rendering Kinnick Stadium a corn-utopia. Consider: Next Saturday the Hawkeyes host Wisconsin (6-1) which just upended No. 1 Ohio State. Then comes Michigan State, which could well be 8-0 when it visits on Halloween eve. Finally, there's the Buckeyes, who are currently 6-1 and the five-time defending conference champions, on November 20.
Any Big Ten team hoping to play for the national championship, or at least in the Rose Bowl, cannot lose at Kinnick Stadium. And that goes for the Hawkeyes, as well.
"We're aware of it," said senior safety Tyler Sash, who in the second quarter returned an interception 36 yards and a blocked field goal 37 yards, with both returns setting up touchdowns. "We understand the opportunity, but we're just going to come out and play the way we always do."
Which is to say, like it's 1986. Iowa, after all, isn't just old school. It's one-room old-schoolhouse. The Hawkeyes play in uniforms that pretty much resemble the ones Chuck Long rocked in the '80s. No Tech-Fit or Pro Combat uniforms for them. Their quarterback, Ricky Stanzi, wears number 12, takes almost all of his snaps under center, and hands off exclusively to one back, Adam Robinson, who lines up seven yards behind the line of scrimmage. Against the Wolverines Robinson toted the ball 31 times for 143 yards.
Stanzi may have a cannon for an arm, but that is where the munitions verbiage ends. No pistol, barely even any shotgun, in Iowa's playbook.
"Coach (Ferentz) was calling the shotgun a little today," said Stanzi, who completed 17 of 24 passes for 248 yards, three touchdowns (all of them to record-setting wide receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos) and no interceptions, "but I was kind of paranoid about that. I like being under center."
On the field Stanzi, who entered Saturday rated third nationally in passing efficiency and as off the map as many an Iowa precinct in terms of Heisman recognition, reminds you of a vintage '80s Big Ten quarterback. Long, perhaps, or Jim Harbaugh or Jim Everett. No read option, no Wildcat, no spread. Iowa's offense is strictly American Gothic.
Off the field Stanzi, with his unprepossessing and self-deprecating manner and "That '70s Show" mane, reminds you of no other quarterback so much as Randall "Pink" Floyd, the hero of "Dazed and Confused." When asked to comment on Johnson-Koulianos surpassing Tim Dwight on Saturday as Iowa's all-time leader in receiving yardage, Stanzi said, "I didn't know what the record was. I don't read very often."
Ohio State and Michigan State do not play this season, the last in which the Big Ten will not have a conference championship game. Wisconsin has already lost to the Spartans and beaten the Buckeyes. All that remains is Iowa for that trio, and all must venture to Kinnick, which in the coming five weeks will garner America's attention like no stadium in that state has since Ray Kinsella's.
The champion of Kinnick Stadium could very well, depending on how matters shake out, be headed to Arizona for a berth in the BCS Championship Game. There's symmetry to that destination, as the Hawkeyes have already visited the Grand Canyon State this season -- and lost. On September 19, Arizona beat them 34-27 in the desert and under the stars in Tucson. It was a hellish night and also, to hear Sash and Stanzi describe it, a trip from hell.
"The flight back felt as if it took forever," said Stanzi, "and not just because we lost. It was after a night game and it's pretty far, too. I remember not getting home and back into my bed until 8:30 Sunday morning. And we still had to watch film that day."
"It was awful," said Stanzi, a Mentor, Ohio, native. "That plane ride was the most uncomfortable ... I remember thinking to myself, This is the worst thing ever. And the security at the airport? They waved each one of us down with a wand. It took an hour-and-a-half just to board the plane. That's why I like to drive everywhere if possible."
In a sport overburdened with mad geniuses and mad ideas (3-3-5 defenses, the Pistol, etc.), Ferentz and his staid Hawkeyes tend to be forgotten. They are a flyover team, if you will. But Ferentz is, after Joe Paterno, the longest-tenured head coach in the Big Ten (12 seasons at Iowa). Stanzi, in his third season as a starter, is a senior, as are all four starters on the nation's most dominant defensive front four.
On Saturday Iowa scored more points, 38, against Michigan than it ever had. The Hawkeyes played before more fans, 112,784, than they ever have. They are not flashy and they have no depth, especially on offense, but Iowa is doing things they never have done before. Their next first may be a chance to play for the national championship.
It could happen. It may seem far-fetched today, but imagine if the Hawkeyes finish out 3-0 at home versus that trio of ranked opponents and do not stub their toe in Bloomington, Evanston or Minneapolis.
Imagine the magic that Kinnick Stadium will generate.
People will come.
And then people will come around on the Hawkeyes.