Saturday, July 2, 2011

A Trip Down Memory Lane: The Most Disappointing Season Ever? 1997

One of the few pictures I could find of the 1997 season. And it doesn't go with this post at all!
Maybe the title is a little harsh. Maybe I should change it to the most underachieving season in the last 32 years, considering I only did the math going back to 1979. But, holy shit was this a spirit breaking season. Luckily for me, I was only 10 years old when this season happened, so I wasn't really aware of how much this team underachieved. My memories of this season were watching Tavian Banks and Tim Dwight make opposing players look stupid. Being that I was too young to understand how good that 1997 Iowa team should have been, 2010 was my most heartbreaking season. Throughout last year's collapse though, people kept comparing the 2010 team to the 1997 team. I didn't really think much of it at the time. Like I said, I had good memories of that team, and I figured that people were just making more of that team because they had two once-in-a-lifetime playmakers.

Then Black Heart Gold Pants came out with a post, talking about using points scored and points allowed to calculate a team's expected winning percentage. Football's Pythagorean Theorem, if you will. Naturally, being the Hawkeye nerd that I am, I decided to calculate Iowa's Pythagorean win percentage for every year all the way through 1979. Season by season, I entered points scored and points allowed into an Excel spread sheet and came up with an expected win percentage.

Naturally, the 2010 team really underperformed. They were expected to win about 2 more games than they actually did. However, their difference of 2.13 more expected wins than actual wins, was not the worst. Not even in the Ferentz era. The 2008 season 2.46 was slightly worse (as BHGP pointed out here). When you add Fry's twenty year career into the equation, 2010 was the fifth most underachieving team as predicted by the Pythagorean Theorem. So what season was number one, you might ask? And by a very large margin? Why, 1997 of course.

Let's look at the Top Five Most Underachieving Iowa Teams since 1979 through the eyes of football's Pythagorean Theorem:

               PS     PA     W    L      T     eW  eL   Diff.

1. 1997- 411     159     7     5      0       11     1     4

2. 1988- 336     233    6     4       3       9      4      3

3. 2008- 394    169     9     4       0      11     2      2

4. 1984- 359    201     8     4       1      10     3      2

5. 2010- 376    221     8     5       0      10     3      2

*PS= Points Scored, PA= Points Allowed, W/L/T= Wins/Losses/Ties, eW/eL= Expected Wins/Expected Losses, Diff.= Difference between Wins and Expected Wins

1997 takes the cake, indeed. The numbers expected Iowa to win 4 more games than they did in 1997. More than any other season between 1979 and today. That's a third of the 1997 team's schedule.

The crazy thing about it is, that this was supposed to be one of Fry's great teams. This team was expected to be contend for the Rose Bowl. The expectations were sky high, and deservedly so. I mean, it was Tavian Banks' senior year, and he was finally going to carry the load at running back. It also happened to be Tim Dwight's senior season too. Not to mention, Iowa had a senior quarterback returning, in Matt Sherman. Sprinkle in some very good players on the other side of the ball in Jared DeVries, Kerry Cooks, Plez Atkins, etc. and the hype was believable.

So what the hell happened to this team?

Like I said, I was only 10 at the time. So I don't really know. But, with the help of the Cedar Rapids Gazette's Database of Iowa Hawkeye Football History, let's take a look at every game and find out.

Game 1: 9/6/1997 vs UNI- W 66-0:

What Happened?

This game was never close. The first offensive play of the game for the Hawkeyes, saw Tavian Banks rip off an 80 yard touchdown run. He would later score on a 40 yarder, as well. Iowa rushed for 395 yards and 4 touchdowns that day. The quarterbacks (Matt Sherman and backup Randy Reiners) threw for 279 yards and 5 touchdowns. The hype machine got a rollin' after this game. It was just Northern Iowa, of course. But, Iowa's offense looked as explosive as everyone expected. And the defense put up a big fat goose egg. The Hawkeyes looked like the juggernaut everyone thought they could be.

Quote of the Game:
  • "I feel very sorry for UNI." "It just got out of hand."- Hayden Fry
Game 2: 9/13/1997 vs Tulsa- W 54-16:

What Happened?
  • Everybody knows this game as the day when Tavian Banks set the single game rushing record. His 314 rushing yards, broke Ed Podolak's record of 286 (though, Podolak averaged an insane 16.82 yards per carry that game). Banks crossed the goal line four times that day (touchdown runs of 71, 14, 14, and 23 yards), which helped Iowa's offense go over 600 total yards for the second time in two weeks. Overall, Banks tallied more points (24-16) and yards (337-217) than Tulsa's entire team that day.
Quote of the Game:
  • "Just a word for the rest of the Big Ten: Tavian Banks is better than Sedrick Shaw." "No disrespect to Sedrick Shaw, wherever he may be, but Tavian Banks is the best running back we've seen since Barry Sanders." - Tulsa Head Coach, Dave Rader
 Game 3: 9/20/2011 at Iowa State- W 63-20:

What Happened?
  • For some reason, the Cedar Rapids Gazette doesn't have the Iowa vs Iowa State story in their database (feel free to give me details on this game in the comments, as I would love to hear them). The only thing I could come up with were Tavian Banks' stats from that day, via Sports Illustrated's Heisman watch. Banks touched the ball 20 times, rushing for 127 yards and 4 touchdowns. His 6.35 yards per carry, helped Iowa win a 43 point blow out.
Game 4: 9/27/1997 vs Illinois- W 38-10:

What Happened?
  • The Hawkeyes got what they considered an "ugly" 28 point win. They were inconsistent that day. Having a bunch of drives that went nowhere, but then busting off some big plays that went for scores. In fact, Iowa had a 72 yard touchdown drive in 19 seconds before halftime. According to the Gazette, Iowa had two other scoring drives that took 9 and 61 seconds off the clock. Big plays included a 76 yard run by Banks (191 yards and 2 touchdowns) to the 4 yard line, where he would score a couple plays later. A 43 yard touchdown pass from Matt Sherman to Damon Gibson. Also, a 61 yard punt return for a touchdown by Tony Collins, where Tim Dwight helped block. If this was an ugly win, the Illini should have been happy it wasn't what the Hawkeyes considered a beautiful win. Game number one in conference play was in the books, and Iowa still looked damn good.
Quote of the Game:
  • "We didn't play very well at all, but we put points on the board."- Iowa Quarterback, Matt Sherman
  • "For us to look that ugly and still win by 28 points, it means we could have a very fine football team."- Hayden Fry
Game 5: 10/4/1997 at Ohio State- L 7-23:

 What Happened?
  •  Missed opportunities. Yeah. Ohio State's defense, and linebacker Andy Katzenmoyer (who should never be placed before Nile Kinnick on ANY list), shut down Iowa's offense, including holding Tavian Banks to 3.8 yards per carry. But, Iowa had their chances and couldn't convert. Matt Sherman overthrew Banks on a deep pass in the first quarter. He also didn't see Austin Wheatley wide open, on a play that would have gone for a big gain. Not all the blame belongs to Sherman, though. Iowa's only drive that got past the 50 yard line in the first half, ended on a blocked 42 yard field goal. In the fourth quarter, Iowa was again moving the ball, when Sherman fumbled the ball after being sacked. Finally, Iowa reached the OSU 45, but Sherman's pass to Tim Dwight was intercepted by, you got it, Andy Katzenmoyer. The pass was tipped and Tim Dwight slipped on the play. Which was pretty characteristic of this game. Iowa's offense left their defense on the field too long. Coincidentally, that is where Iowa left too many points in this game.
Quote of the Game:
  • "I think he was in the backfield more than I was."- Tavian Banks on Ohio State Linebacker, Andy Katzenmoyer
  • "We had a chance and we just couldn't execute."- Hayden Fry
Game 6: 10/18/1997 at Michigan- L 24-28:

 What Happened?
  • Iowa was up 21-7 at halftime. It was largely because of special teams and the defense. The Hawkeyes defense and special teams combined to pick off three passes, recover one fumble, and block a punt in the first half. Tim Dwight had a 61 yard punt return touchdown right before halftime. The offense, though, was not very good. Tavian Banks finished the game with 99 yards and 1 touchdown on 19 carries. However, 53 of those yards came when Banks busted off a big touchdown run in the second quarter. Take away that one explosive play, and Banks had 46 yards on 18 carries. Add to that, the fact that Matt Sherman threw for 86 yards (61 of which came on the final drive) and 3 interceptions, and you get an offense that couldn't move the ball and left their defense on the field way too long (second week in a row). Iowa would threaten with a long drive at the end of the game. However, Sherman was under pressure and he forced a pass into a fully covered Tim Dwight, which was ultimately caught by a Michigan linebacker. Tavian Banks was the primary target on the play, and was wide open around the Michigan 5. This was two weeks in a row that Iowa's offense struggled. Was it the product of playing two really good defenses? Or, was it just two bad games?
Quote of the Game:
  • "Our offense put a big goose-egg out there today."- Tavian Banks
  • "Yeah, I was open. If he had thrown it, I would have caught it."- Tavian Banks
Game 7: 10/25/1997 vs Indiana- W 62-0:

What Happened?
  • After playing two very good teams the weeks before, Iowa got an inferior Indiana team and dominated them in every facet. Even without starting quarterback Matt Sherman, who was sidelined with a broken thumb. Randy Reiners played in his place, and did alright. But, the real star of the show was Tim Dwight. He had a 92 yard punt return for touchdown, caught a 29 yard pass for a touchdown, and threw a 64 yard touchdown pass to Damon Gibson. Banks had 107 yards on 21 carries. He also had 2 touchdowns, one of the rushing variety and one of the receiving variety. Also, Matt Bowen had a 70 yard interception return for a touchdown. Iowa scored in just about every single way imaginable in this game. Indiana was a bad team, who was unlucky enough to have to play an Iowa team that had just come off of two soul-crushing losses. 
Quote of the Game:
  • "I talked with Hayden after the game. No, I have no problem with the score. He had his team doing everything but kneeling down. We just let 'em score."- Indiana Head Coach, Cam Cameron
Game 8: 11/1/1997 vs Purdue: W 35-17:

What Happened?
  • This was a big game for Iowa. They had fallen flat against the only real tough competition they had faced that year. A win over eighteenth ranked Purdue could really change the complexion of the season. It started off terribly, as Iowa was down 17-7. Purdue's "Basketball on Grass" offense gave Iowa's defense fits. Then, all of the sudden, Iowa made a simple yet effective change. They started playing zone defense, moving away from the man-to-man that was allowing Purdue to move up and down the field at will. Once that happened, Iowa put the breaks on Purdue's offense. They didn't just slow it, however, they stopped it dead in its tracks. Iowa would go on to score 28 unanswered points to win this game 35-17. Reiners was once again the quarterback, as Sherman was still banged up, and he played a big part in this game. Especially his legs. Fry pulled out the option, and Reiners ran the ball 16 times for 79 yards (not including sacks). Rob Thein caught 2 touchdown passes and ran for another. Tavian Banks also added another rushing touchdown, while going for 126 yards on 24 carries. Knocking off Purdue, who was tied for the conference lead, looked like a win that could right the ship, and get the Hawkeyes season back on track.
Quote of the Game:
  • "It looked to me like they had prepared all week long for us to play man-to-man.When we started playing zone, they weren't ready for that, is what it looked like to me."- Iowa Defensive Coordinator, Bob Elliot
  • "I guess it was a hokey-pokey win."- Hayden Fry
Game 9: 11/8/1997 at Wisconsin: L 10-13:

What Happened?
  • Everything that could've gone wrong, went wrong. Injuries, penalties, missed opportunities. You name it, it happened in this game. Iowa started freshman quarterback, Scott Mullens, as Reiners was sidelined with a deep knee bruise. The freshman didn't play well at all. Which allowed Wisconsin to get up to a 10-0 lead, and Mullens was pulled in the second quarter in favor of the injured Reiners. Reiners ability to scramble was limited by his knee injury, but Iowa did almost make the comeback. Even after they were down 13-0. The Hawkeyes kicked a field goal with about 8:00 left in the game to bring the game within three. However, they never fully capitalized on their chances to tie the game or take the lead. Reiners helped get Iowa back in the game. But, the fairly inexperienced quarterback, overthrew Tim Dwight wide open deep down the middle in the fourth quarter. He also didn't missed a wide open Dwight down the sideline on the next drive. Special teams was also a problem in this game, as Iowa kicker, Zach Bromert, had a 19 yard field goal blocked in the third quarter, and missed a 43 yard field goal to tie the game in the fourth quarter. Iowa offensive tackle, Chad Deal, got called for a false start inside the five. That penalty pushed Iowa back, and led to the 19 yard field goal that ended up being blocked. He also had a holding call that brought back a 44 yard pass from Reiners to Dwight, that would have put Iowa on the Wisconsin 6 yard line in the second quarter. Oh yeah. Did I mention, that this was the first win for Wisconsin over Iowa in twenty years. You remember that momentum from the Purdue game? Gone. The season was on the brink.
Quote of the Game:
  • "I missed some wide-open receivers, made some wrong reads, mental stuff."- Iowa Quarterback Randy Reiners
  • "It just wasn't our day."- Hayden Fry
Game 10: 11/15/1997 at Northwestern- L 14-15:

What Happened?
  • If Purdue was a momentum change in the right direction, Northwestern was a momentum nosedive in the wrong direction (not much has changed, I guess). Iowa dropped from #12 in the polls the week before, to #22 going into Evanston. They were fighting for a January bowl game, and fighting to save their once promising season. Unfortunately they fell short. Again. Iowa actually moved the ball on Northwestern, and the stat line for Iowa looked better than it did for Wildcats. Tavian Banks ran for 169 yards, and Iowa's only touchdowns of the day. Northwestern wide receiver, Brian Musso, scored Northwestern's only two touchdowns on two big pass plays. Including, a 60 yarder where two Iowa defensive backs ran into eachother. The real story of the game was special teams, though. Iowa missed four field goals (four fucking field goals!). They weren't necessarily easy ones, as two kickers missed field goal attempts of 45, 33, 50, and 47 yards. It was a wet and snowy day, and none of those were particularly chip shots. However, at least one of those would have won the game. Finally, Northwestern's other score came on a punt, where a bad snap flew over  Jason Baker's head and out of the endzone. That safety also made the difference in the game. With the one point loss to Northwestern, Iowa was officially scratched from a January bowl.
Quote of the Game:
  • "It's not about bowl bids anymore. It's about personal pride. Team pride."- Iowa defensive tackle, Jared DeVries
Game 11: 11/22/1997 vs Minnesota- W 31-0:

What Happened?
  • After sealing their fate of going 0-4 in conference road games, Iowa came back to Kinnick and pummeled a weak Minnesota team. It was a special Senior Day, that would see Tim Dwight and Tavian Banks play their last game in Iowa City. Banks only had 18 carries and 74 yards due to a sprained ankle. It was Dwight, however, who shined in this game. He broke almost every record imaginable that day. He finished with two touchdowns, one receiving and one on a punt return. He also finished with Big Ten records in career punt returns for touchdowns and career punt return yards. He also tied the Big Ten record for most punt return touchdowns in a season. If that wasn't enough, Dwight also set the school record for most career receiving yards. Did I also mention that Iowa's defense only gave up 170 yards and forced five turnovers, on the way to a shutout? It wasn't all great, as the offense only churned out 291 yards of offense. Nonetheless, this was a much needed victory after the previous weeks. Their season may have been a massive disappointment, but wrapping up a bowl bid with a 31-0 blowout of a conference rival is a huge pick me up.
Quote of the Game:
  • "It was a great way to finish with all the heartbreak that we've had. In our heart and mind we know we could have done better, but we didn't."- Hayden Fry
Game 12 Sun Bowl: 12/31/1997 vs Arizona State- L 7-17:

What Happened?
  • The offense failed again. Matt Sherman was back at quarterback, but he played terribly, completing 8-22 passes for 120 yards. He was pulled for back up Randy Reiners in the second quarter, but when Reiners didn't create a spark, Fry put Sherman back in. He was running for his life all day, as the ASU defense had constant pressure on him, sacking him four times and making his life hell. The same defense also held Tavian Banks to 52 yards on 14 carries. Banks broke a 26 yarder, but other than that, he was a non-factor all game. Dwight had 3 catches for 51 yards, but no touchdowns. He was also a non-factor in the return game. The Hawkeye defense held Arizona State to 17 points, but they got gashed on the ground, as Sun Devil running back, Michael Martin, ran for 169 yards. Overall, this game was a painful ending to a painful season.
Quote of the Game:
  • "It's just disappointing. Frustrating. Our offense didn't show up again.Things have to change on offense."- Tavian Banks
Analysis

When looking at where Iowa faltered, one needs to look at their conference schedule. The Hawkeyes thoroughly spanked their non-conference opponents. They finished the season undefeated at Kinnick, and 1-4 in games not played in Kinnick (leaving out the Sun Bowl, because I'm looking at how Iowa ended up in the Sun Bowl, instead of a bigger bowl). That also includes 0-4 on the road in conference games. Iowa really beat only one good team in the Big 10 that season in Purdue, who finished 9-3 overall. Other than that, their 3 wins in conference play came against the cellar dwellars that were Illinois (0-11), Indiana (2-9), and Minnesota (3-9). All of whom they blew out. Three of Iowa's four conference losses came against the top tier of the conference. Including, a National Championship Michigan team (12-0), Ohio State (10-3), and Wisconsin (8-5). Games in which they kept the score close (except for the Ohio State game). Of course, the Northwestern loss looks bad (we're pretty used to that now a days, though), considering they were a 5-7 team.

When we look at points, Iowa outscored their opponents 411 to 159. Their 34.3 points per game scored, was the best in the conference. But, clearly, some of that was helped by their crazy non-conference scores. The defense was strong, as their 13.3 points per game allowed, finished third in the conference only behind Michigan (9.5) and Ohio State (13.1).

Breaking it up into conference and non-conference numbers, the offense (and Tim Dwight on special teams) averaged a crazy 61 points per game in non-conference play. Clearly that wasn't sustainable, and they averaged 27.63 points per game vs Big 10 teams. But, 62 of those 221 conference points, were scored in a blowout of Indiana. That clearly skews their conference average. Take IU out of the equation, and Iowa averaged 22.71 points per game and allowed 15.14 points per game in the other seven conference games.

Looking at their losses, Iowa won their four conference games by an average score of 42-7. When they lost, they lost by an average score of 14-20. What does this mean? Well, Iowa obliterated the cupcakes on their schedule (minus Northwestern, of course), and lost very close games to the big boys on their schedule (except Ohio State, which they lost by 16). The points scored, and the close losses, are exactly why the Pythagorean Theorem expected Iowa to win four more games than they did. They lost their four games (once again, not including ASU) by a total of 24 points. I re-ran the numbers, taking out the Sun Bowl, and the Pythagorean Theorem expected Iowa to go 10-1 in the regular season. They had their chances to make the game competitive against Ohio State, but they lost by 16 points. I think it's pretty safe to say, that Pythagoras thinks this is the game that Iowa should have lost.

That leaves us with Michigan, Wisconsin, and Northwestern as teams that the numbers thought Iowa should have beaten. Iowa lost to Michigan by 4 points, but they were up 21-7 at halftime. 3 interceptions by Sherman (including one on the final drive of the game), and the inability of Iowa's offense to keep their defense off the field, led to the Hawkeyes blowing that 14 point halftime lead.

The Wisconsin game was Murphy's Law at its finest. Injuries forced freshman Scott Mullen to play, and when he sucked, an injured Randy Reiners had to try to lead the comeback. Of course, you can't necessarily blame injuries, when Ron Dayne left the game in the first quarter due to one. But, Iowa had their chance to win or at least tie the game. And making one or both of the botched field goals does exactly that.

With Northwestern, you can put the blame on special teams. Make one of the four (!) missed field goals or don't snap the ball over the punters head, and Iowa wins that game.

Conclusion

It's the unlucky bounces like the ones listed above, that can determine close games. Not to say that Iowa was necessarily unlucky, and should have won those games. But, if you replay those games over again, how many times do you expect Iowa to miss four field goals and snap a ball out of the back of the endzone in the same game? How many times do you expect that stingy Iowa defense to blow a 14 point lead? Even ignoring the big plays like those, it's the little things that get magnified in these kinds of close losses. The little moments like Reiners just throwing the ball a little too far and missing a wide open Tim Dwight down the field against Wisconsin. Re-run that play ten times, and how often does he make that throw?

The 1997 team was better than the 7-5 record that they finished with. They blew out the inferior teams (for the most part), and they played the top teams closely (for the most part). They just had trouble winning the close games. It's not hard to imagine a scenario where this team finished the regular season with a record of at least 9-2 and ended up in a January bowl game. But, football is a game of inches, and those inches matter more and more the closer the scoreboard is. Not all of the bounces are going to go your way. Close games are basically a coin flip. Over time we would expect those bounces to even out. However, over a season, you never know what to expect. A football season is such a small sample size, that anything can happen. And I think the 1997 Iowa team found that out the hard way.


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