Hayden Fry takes a personal interest in the high-powered Iowa offense. When the offense goes bad, Fry grows sour.
That charming west Texas accent of his can turn a little shrill when the Hawkeyes are struggling, as they were Wednesday night in the 10th Holiday Bowl against Wyoming.
As the evening wore on, Fry became increasingly frustrated with his team’s offensive performance. Several times, he could be seen huddling his offense behind the bench. Some of what was said was lost in the din of the record sellout crowd of 61,892 at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, but the message was clear. Fry was not pleased.
“I would have taken them behind the barn, but I didn’t have one,” Fry said later, his accent filled with nothing but charm and good humor.
He could afford to smile then. His Hawkeyes had come from behind in inventive fashion to defeat Wyoming, 20-19, for their second consecutive one-point Holiday Bowl victory.
The Hawkeyes (10-3) returned a blocked punt for a touchdown, ran back an interception for another and saved their longest and only successful offensive drive for just when they needed it.
The clinching points came on a one-yard touchdown run by junior running back David Hudson with 7:30 to play. The run ended a 10-play, 86-yard drive highlighted by a 48-yard pass play from quarterback Chuck Hartlieb to split end Travis Watkins.
Watkins caught the Wyoming secondary flat-footed. He briefly cut his route short, then streaked up field, making the catch in full stride before he was dragged down at the Wyoming 20.
“The pass to Watkins was the turning point,” Hartlieb said. “They were gambling all night, and we finally took advantage of it.”
Until then, the Iowa offense was stymied. The Hawkeyes had turned the ball over on downs at the Wyoming five-yard line, lost another opportunity when tailback Kevin Harmon fumbled out of the end zone for a touchback and another when Rob Houghtlin (whose 41-yard field goal on the final play of the game beat San Diego State, 39-38, last year) missed a 30-yarder wide right late in the first half.
The Hawkeyes were held to 331 yards, more than 100 below their season average.
“That was the most frustrating offensive game I’ve ever been associated with,” Hartlieb said. “We never really got going until the end.”
While Hudson’s touchdown put the Hawkeyes up for good, the Hawkeyes had to endure two tests in the final 46 seconds before victory was theirs. After all, this was the Holiday Bowl, a game that has been decided by one point five times in its 10-year existance.
First, the Hawkeyes had to have Merton Hanks block Greg Worker’s 52-yard field with 46 seconds to play. Then they had to hold off the Cowboys’ last-ditch try with the help of a costly holding penalty against Cowboy center Grant Salisbury.
The penalty wiped out a 25-yard pass play to flanker James Loving from quarterback Craig Burnett, which would have given Wyoming (10-3) a first down at the Iowa 34 with 14 seconds to play.
“When you lose a ballgame like we did playing as hard as we did, it really hurts,” first-year Wyoming Coach Paul Roach said.
Wyoming took a 12-0 first-quarter lead, were ahead, 19-7, at halftime and did not surrender the lead until Hudson’s touchdown. The Cowboys, however, were undone by a couple of key mistakes.
The first one came with 9:26 to play in the first half when Hanks blocked Tom Kilpatrick’s punt and free safety Jay Hess scooped the ball up and ran 10 yards for a touchdown. But the one that might have hurt the most was Anthony Wright’s 33-yard interception return for a touchdown on Burnett’s second pass of the fourth quarter.
“The (receiver) ran a 10-to-15-yard curl pattern and the ball was overthrown,” Wright said. “When I saw it coming, I knew this was it. As soon as I got it, I knew I could go all the way. Nothing was going to stop me.”
Said Roach: “The interception was more devastating than the blocked punt. As much as we throw the ball, you’re going to have some intercepted. To have one when you’re backed up like we were is the worst thing that can happen.”
The touchdown brought the Hawkeyes within striking distance and seemed to turn around what had been a game dominated by the Cowboys.
Wyoming established its defensive dominance early, stopping Harmon for losses of 3 and 4 yards on his first two carries, batting down one pass and harassing Hartlieb into two first-quarter sacks.
The Hawkeyes did not gain a first down until 16 seconds remained in the first quarter.
And while the Cowboy defense kept control of the Hartlieb and the Iowa passing game, the Wyoming quick drop passing game and multiple formations kept the Iowa defense guessing.
The Hawkeyes shut down Gerald Abraham, holding the Cowboys’ 1,000-yard rusher to 39 yards in 14 carries, but they could not stop Burnett.
Burnett completed 28 of a Holiday Bowl-record 51 attempts for 332 yards. He completed passes to nine receivers, lead by Anthony Sargent’s 8 catches for 106 yards.
The Cowboys seemed to have little trouble moving the ball in the air despite the loss of their leading receiver, tight end Bill Hoffman, with a broken right arm late in the first quarter.
Hoffman was injured when he was tackled by Burt after a 13-yard pass completion from Burnett. The loss of Hoffman was not in vain, however, as four plays later receiver James Loving made a leaping catch in the left corner of the end zone to complete a 15-yard touchdown pass from Burnett with 1:48 left in the first quarter.
The touchdown, combined with earlier field goals of 43 and 38 yards by Worker, gave the Cowboys a 12-0 lead.
The Cowboys took a 19-7 lead at the half on Abraham’s 3-yard run. But they were shutout in the second half, a half that was delayed 8 minutes because the stadium lights did not come on quickly enough after a halftime fireworks display.
“That was the best defense we faced all year for one full half,” Fry said. “Our defense and special teams won it with an inspirational effort.”