Wine Online: Good Day of Decision-Making for Hawkeyes

Nov. 9, 2008

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Coaching decisions determine the outcome of games, and Kirk Ferentz made two Nov. 8 that were critical in the University of Iowa’s memorable 24-23 victory over Penn State.

Ferentz made his first just before the game started. In his nearly 10 seasons as coach of the Hawkeyes, he has chosen to receive the kickoff if his team wins the coin toss. But on a cold and windy day, he decided to defer his choice until the second half after Iowa won the coin flip against the Nittany Lions.

Not surprisingly, Penn State chose to receive the opening kickoff, which gave Iowa its choice of goals to defend. The Hawkeyes wanted the wind at their backs, and the game was on.

Penn State started its first possession at its own 20 after Iowa’s kickoff sailed into the end zone for a touchback. On the third play from scrimmage, the Hawkeyes chased quarterback Daryll Clark to the 1-yard line, where he was sacked by Adrian Clayborn.

From deep in the end zone, Jeremy Boone got off a short punt into a stiff wind. It was returned 10 yards by Andy Brodell to the Penn State 25-yard line.

It took Shonn Greene only two plays to cover that distance in consecutive rushes, and Iowa had a surprising 7-0 lead with less than two minutes off the clock. The decision to defer paid off.

Ferentz made his second critical decision more than three hours later. His team was trailing 23-21 and moving into field goal range with less than a minute left in the game. Who would attempt the field goal, Trent Mossbrucker or Daniel Murray?

Mossbrucker is a scholarship freshman who has made 13 of 15 field goals this season. Murray is a walk-on sophomore who is only 1 of 3. Murray also kicks off because he has a stronger leg.

Ferentz decided on Murray.

A win over Purdue, and another in the final game of the season at Minnesota, would give Iowa an 8-4 record and a possible berth in a January bowl game. It’s something to shoot for, and these Hawkeyes are playing good football.

So with six seconds on the clock, and after a time out by each team, Murray attempted the biggest kick of his young life. From the right hash mark on the 21 yard line, he kicked the football solidly into a stiff crosswind. It sailed squarely between the uprights, and Iowa had its biggest and most exciting victory since beating LSU in the Capital One Bowl nearly four years ago.

The 24-23 victory got a monkey off the back of an Iowa team that had not been able to win close games or beat good teams. This game was as close as they get, and Penn State is a very good team, ranked No. 3 in the nation going into the game.

The decisions by Ferentz to defer on the coin toss, and to have Murray kick the decisive field goal were critical in Iowa’s victory, but there were other reasons the Hawkeyes prevailed. An Iowa defense that got pushed around in the first half held Penn State to 86 total yards after intermission. The visitors converted 6 of 9 third downs in the first half but Iowa’s defense shut them out (0 for 5) in the second.

An Iowa offense that managed only 70 yards in the first half moved the ball for 202 yards in the second. The Hawkeyes have not been very good at converting third downs this season, but they were 7 of 8 in the second half, three of those coming on the drive that set up the winning field goal.

Iowa’s defense also made a critical stand on Penn State’s second possession of the game. A long, time-consuming drive put the ball at the 2-yard line, where the Nittany Lions had a first down. But three plays lost five yards and they had to settle for a short field goal.

Ferentz knows how to beat Penn State, especially in close games. His Iowa teams have won six of eight games against the Nittany Lions. Two were decided in overtime, another by two points and this year’s game by one.

Ferentz’s job this week will be to scrape his team off the ceiling and get them grounded for Purdue at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 15. The Boilermakers are struggling in Coach Joe Tiller’s final season, with a record of 3-7. They’ve won only once in the Big Ten Conference.

The Hawkeyes will be favored, and they have not always played well in that role. They are now bowl-eligible, but that does not guarantee a postseason appearance (see last year).

A win over Purdue, and another in the final game of the season at Minnesota, would give Iowa an 8-4 record and a possible berth in a January bowl game. It’s something to shoot for, and these Hawkeyes are playing good football.

The final two weeks of the season should be very interesting.