Sept. 15, 2014
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By DARREN MILLER
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Sam Brownlee wasn’t the original Next Man In, but what he did for the University of Iowa football team in 2004 made him a poster child for backups everywhere.
Depending on who you ask, Brownlee opened camp as the No. 4 or 5 running back for the Hawkeyes behind Jermelle Lewis, Marcus Schnoor, and Albert Young. He shared a rung with Marques Simmons.
“Sam was a guy sitting in the back of the room in August,” UI head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Nobody could have predicted what was going to happen.”
When any Division I program loses its top three running backs to injury in the same season, winning 10 games, a Big Ten championship, and the Capital One Bowl would seem as likely as a 5-foot-10, 198-pound sophomore walk-on leading the team with 227 rushing yards and no touchdowns.
But that happened in 2004 when Brownlee started the final six games — all Hawkeye wins. He averaged 2.4 yards on 94 carries, marking the first time a UI season rushing leader had less than 300 yards since Silas McKinnie (286) in 1965. The first Hawkeye to earn that honor was Nile Kinnick in 1937 with 214 yards.
“I like to think I’m in pretty good company,” Brownlee said, referring to Kinnick, winner of the 1939 Heisman Trophy. “People come up to me and say, `Sam Brownlee: two yards and a cloud of dust.’ That’s my claim to fame. Slow running back who gained two yards a carry.”
In 2004, Iowa finished 116th of 117 teams in NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision rushing offense, averaging 72.58 yards per game (Oregon State was last at 70.67). The Hawkeyes were 101st in total offense (312.67), but 11th in total defense (293.83). They tied for second in turnovers gained (32), fifth in rushing defense (92.5), and sixth in turnover margin (plus-13).“I took pride in knowing the protections and being good at blocking. I’m not going to win any 100-yard dash sprints on the football field, but I took pride in knowing the offense and the protection schemes and being able to pad my guy and do my job so everybody else could do theirs.”Sam Brownlee
UI running back
“Sam never blew a protection and never turned the ball over,” Ferentz said. “He allowed us to have a chance to win. He got called from deep in the bullpen and responded in an admirable way.”
“I took pride in knowing the protections and being good at blocking,” said Brownlee, a native of Emmetsburg, Iowa. “I’m not going to win any 100-yard dash sprints on the football field, but I took pride in knowing the offense and the protection schemes and being able to pad my guy and do my job so everybody else could do theirs.”
Six Hawkeyes have rushed for more yards in one game than Brownlee did in the entire 2004 season. Still, Iowa finished with eight straight victories — three against ranked opponents. It was a feat that didn’t seem probable Sept. 18 when the Hawkeyes lost at Arizona State, 44-7.
“Every week it was, `What do we need to do to win,’ and we prepared as hard as we could to do that,” Brownlee said. “It was a special team to be around because the guys knew how to win. We weren’t the fanciest or the best athletes, but we were guys who knew how to put the work in to win.”
Iowa opened the season with home victories against Kent State (39-7) and Iowa State (17-10) before the debacle in Phoenix. The conference season began with a 30-17 loss at Michigan. It was nothing but wins the rest of the way: Michigan State (38-16), Ohio State (33-7), Penn State (6-4 in Brownlee’s first career start), Illinois (23-13), Purdue (23-21), Minnesota (29-27), and Wisconsin (30-7).
The final home game against Wisconsin secured the Big Ten title, and like most of the 2004 season, that game wasn’t easy. Iowa’s first two drives were thwarted by Badger interceptions, but the Hawkeyes found a way to win.
“That game was representative of our team,” Ferentz said. “The guys kept playing and turned it on in the fourth quarter. To get the (Big Ten Championship) trophy on our field was a special moment.”
Iowa faced No. 11 Louisiana State in the Capital One Bowl on Jan. 1, 2005, winning 30-25 on the game’s final play — a 56-yard touchdown pass from Drew Tate to Warren Holloway.
“We ended up playing somebody really good and we ended up winning,” Ferentz said. “It was a week-to-week season all the way.”
The next two years, Brownlee combined to carry the ball 15 times for 72 yards and two touchdowns.
“I wish I would have had a lot more yards but (2004) was a real memorable year,” Brownlee said. “We did what we could to win and got lucky enough to do that. Everything fell into place, guys worked hard and we got luck in some way, shape, or form to pull out those games.”
Brownlee returned to Emmetsburg, where he helps on the family farm and with a family-run farm management operation. In Iowa City, he is still revered as the 2004 championship season’s Next Man In.