Wine Online: A Mixed Bag

Nov. 27, 2011

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Some observations, opinions and knee-jerk reactions following another Big Ten football season:

The Hawkeyes finished 7-5, about where pre-season predictions had them. The record would have been 9-3 had they protected fourth quarter and overtime leads at Iowa State, and not had a fourth-quarter meltdown at Minnesota. On the other hand, it would have been 6-6 if not for a school-record 28-point rally that beat Pittsburgh.

In balance, a 7-5 overall record (4-4 in the Big Ten) is a reasonable finish for a team that had to replace 13 starters, more than any opponent on its schedule. It seemed to me that anything over six wins would be gravy, so I got a little gravy.

No football team was impacted more than Iowa by the addition of Nebraska to the Big Ten. The league was split into two divisions, and the Hawkeyes aren’t even in the same division as their two nearby neighbors to the east, Wisconsin and Illinois. In fact, they played neither this year (and won’t next) even though the Badgers are a traditional rival – the two teams have met 86 times and play for the Heartland Trophy. Nebraska has taken the place of Minnesota as Iowa’s season-ending game, which is played on Friday and not Saturday.

Perhaps because Iowa is the only Big Ten state neighboring Nebraska, conference officials decided to match their football teams the last game of the season. It’s sort of like an arranged marriage. Many believe the marriage will work and this will become a genuine traditional rivalry, but this year it seemed strange to a person who has been following the Hawkeyes for decades and kept looking for Floyd of Rosedale.

As for the game, we learned Nebraska has two different defenses. One gave up 48 and 45 points in getting blown out at Wisconsin and Michigan, and 28 in a home-field loss to Northwestern. The other gave up no touchdowns to Michigan State (the Spartans’ only Big Ten loss) and one to Iowa. The Hawkeyes obviously caught the Huskers on the wrong day, plus Iowa’s passing game was out of sync.

In balance, a 7-5 overall record (4-4 in the Big Ten) is a reasonable finish for a team that had to replace 13 starters, more than any opponent on its schedule. It seemed to me that anything over six wins would be gravy, so I got a little gravy.

The usually accurate James Vandenberg looked like a baseball pitcher having trouble finding the strike zone. Most of his passes were wild high. So the first Iowa-Nebraska football game that counts in the Big Ten standings goes to the Huskers, 20-7. It was played in Memorial Stadium, but it wasn’t necessarily memorable, at least for the Hawkeyes.

Iowa is bowl eligible for the 11th straight year. Ohio State is the only team in the Big Ten that can match that streak, but it’s uncertain as to whether the NCAA will allow the Buckeyes to participate in a post-season game. That’s because of NCAA infractions that resulted in player suspensions and cost Coach Jim Tressel his job.

Another unexpected coaching change took place at Penn State. The story is far too complicated to get into here, but it gives me an opportunity to pass along a personal story about Joe Paterno. Penn State was admitted to the Big Ten when I was president of the College Sports Information Directors of America, and I invited Paterno to be the keynote speaker at our national convention. Somewhat to my surprise he accepted and flew by private jet to Lexington, Ky., where our meeting was being held.

After he gave a very good speech to a large audience, I expressed my thanks and handed him a check for $2,000. He took a look at it and handed it back, saying, “Please give this to your favorite charity.” This story is not relevant to what has recently happened at Penn State and the sudden departure of a coaching legend. It was simply an act of kindness and generosity that I have never forgotten.

Paterno’s departure makes Kirk Ferentz, at age 56 and in his 13th season at Iowa, the dean of the Big Ten coaches. It is another reminder as to what stability and continuity mean to a football program. Hayden Fry and Kirk Ferentz have been Iowa’s only two head coaches in the past 33 seasons. During that time Iowa has won five Big Ten championships, and they are headed to their 26th bowl game. For Hawkeye fans, there was a lot to be thankful for during the Thanksgiving season.

Ten Iowa players finished high in the Big Ten’s regular-season statistics. Marvin McNutt was No. 1 in both receiving yards (1,269) and touchdown receptions (12). James Vandenberg was No. 1 in yards passing (2,806) and No. 2 in TD passes (23). Marcus Coker was No. 2 in rushing yards (1,384). This is the first time Iowa had a 1,000-yard rusher and 1,000-yard receiver in the same season.

On defense, James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Jordan Bernstine finished among the Top 10 on the tackle chart. Mike Daniels and Broderick Binns are among the Top 10 in sacks. Micah Hyde tied for No. 1 in passes defended and Shaun Prater tied for No. 2 in forced fumbles.

The first Big Ten championship game will feature a rematch of Michigan State and Wisconsin. The Spartans won the first game 37-31 on a desperation Hail Mary pass that required a lengthy official review. That game was played outdoors at East Lansing. The title game will be indoors at Indianapolis. Both teams have 10-2 records and the winner goes to the Rose Bowl. It should be a terrific game in the Big Ten’s first year of 12 teams and two divisions.

Where are the Hawkeyes headed for their bowl game? I don’t have a clue, but if you’re planning to attend it might be a good idea to ask your travel agent for the best routes to Dallas, Houston and Jacksonville. Then stay tuned for the announcement.