Coach Hayden Fry calls his Iowa Hawkeyes a surprise team, but the surprise may be that these guys aren't playing for bigger stakes somewhere on Jan. 1.
Rated No. 5 in the CNN/USA Today Coaches Poll and seventh by Associated Press, this is a 10-1 team that has a chance to be Fry's highest-rated squad in his 13 seasons at Iowa, a team that, except for a second-half stumble at Michigan, might be playing in the Rose Bowl for the national championship.
Fry says he never foresaw this kind of success for the Hawkeyes, who had to replace six graduated All-Big Ten players. But they barely missed a beat, ranking first in the Big Ten in defense, second in scoring and third in overall offense. Eight players earned All-Big Ten first-team honors, with another on second team. Lineman Leroy Smith, a converted running back, was the conference defensive player of the year.
But thanks to the Big Ten's agreement to send its second-place team to Monday's Holiday Bowl, and because the Hawkeyes lost to Michigan, 43-24, here they are getting ready for Brigham Young (8-3-1), seeing Sea World and touring aircraft carriers and trying to figure out what game that Detmer character is playing--it's sure not football as they know it in the Big Ten.
Not that anybody's complaining--Iowa is 2-0 in its previous Holiday Bowl appearances, the payoff is a healthy $1.3 million, the weather's usually fine and San Diego finds its economy and those Iowa tourist dollars a good mix. According to marketing surveys of previous games, Iowans have been the freest spenders of visiting bowl groups.
"I don't know where those farmers get the money," Fry mused recently, "but we take great crowds with us. You know, we've led the Big Ten in contributions (from alumni and boosters) nine of the last 10 years. We don't have beaches or pro teams. We're the only dance in town. We even sell out rasslin.' "
Iowa apparently learned its dance steps faster than Fry anticipated this year. Fry emphasizes defense, and the Hawkeyes boast all-conference players at tackle, Ron Geater, and linebacker, John Derby, as well as Smith, who set a Big Ten record with 18 sacks and is a consensus All-American at defensive end.
However, the well-rounded offense boasts five first-team all-leaguers, led by quarterback Matt Rodgers. He is joined by running back Mike Saunders, center Mike Devlin, tackle Rob Baxley and receiver Danan Hughes, while tight end Alan Cross (out of Mt. Carmel High) earned second-team honors. Iowa averages 30 points--not all that far behind BYU's 35-point average.
And when Rodgers sprained a knee in a 16-9 victory at Ohio State, backup Jim Hartlieb stepped in and maintained the lead there, then directed a 38-21 victory over Indiana the next week.
"This has been a great season for us, a big surprise. It's the biggest surprise team I've had in my 13 seasons at Iowa," Fry said. "Overachieved? Yeah, no question about it. The greatest thing I did was not tell my players we're not really that good.
"We've had some critical injuries, and the No. 2 guys have done the job. That says to me we've done a quality job of recruiting. We were wondering about our No. 2 quarterback, and in the Ohio State game we found out. Brigham Young's probably got a whole stable of quarterbacks but I don't think they've had to answer that question yet."
If Rodgers ranks about a light year behind Detmer in recognition, Big Ten teams have seen enough of the 6-foot-4, 210-pound senior who follows in the mold of predecessors Chuck Long, Mark Vlasic and Chuck Hartlieb. A three-year starter, he ranks 10th in Big Ten career passing yardage and has thrown for 2,054 yards and 14 touchdowns this year despite missing two games after suffering a sprained knee against Ohio State.
In Iowa's offense, Rodgers is also asked to run regularly, and is fourth on the team in rushing with 153 yards.
"I'm really impressed with Rodgers on film," BYU Coach LaVell Edwards said. "They throw the football much more than people realize. Matt Rodgers is very definitely a pro prospect."
Fry said the game won't come down to a personal duel between Rodgers and Detmer because "we don't require our quarterback to throw as much, just like Brigham Young doesn't require their quarterback to run as much."
But, he added, "you'll see two of the finest quarterbacks ever to play the game. Rodgers is vastly underrated."
Rodgers is supported by Saunders, who has rushed for 919 yards and eight touchdowns, and fullback Lew Montgomery, who averages 42 yards per game and has also scored eight times.
Hughes leads the Hawkeyes with 38 receptions for eight touchdowns and nearly 19 yards per catch. The passing game is spread equitably between the receivers and backs. Montgomery is second with 30 receptions, mostly in short-yardage situations, followed by Cross (30 catches, 16.1 average), wide receiver Jon Filloon (29, 11.8) and Saunders (27, 7.6).
If Smith didn't have NFL draftees Nick Bell and Tony Stewart a year ahead of him, he might still be toting the ball on offense. But, Fry reasoned, "We could see Leroy had too much talent to be a third-string running back. We needed some speed at defensive end so we moved him over and he's had three excellent years."
At 6-2 and 214 pounds, Smith hardly fits the NFL prototype of the dominating defensive end, but he's had an unstoppable season. He set an Iowa single-game record with five sacks against Ohio State. He set a season record with 22 tackles for negative yardage and caused three fumbles. Fry compares him to former Iowa star Andre Tippett, now an all-pro lineman with the New England Patriots.
"He's a big-play maker," Fry said.
With Smith in the forefront, the Iowa defense had a school-record 60 sacks and ranked 18th in scoring defense, giving up an average of 15 points a game. They held Wisconsin to 82 total yards, the best effort in Division I this season.
It's an aspect of the game Fry said Iowans appreciate. "Personally, I'd rather have a real good defensive team than an offensive team if I had to make the choice," Fry said. "When people go to a football game they like entertainment. They want to see scoring. There are not five places in the U.S. (where fans) recognize defense, but at Iowa they stand up and applaud good defense."