MIAMI –It was the coldest Orange Bowl ever at kickoff: 49 degrees. Maybe the option’s freezing point is below 50.
The offense that averaged over 300 yards rushing per game this season, the offense that scored 57 touchdowns in 13 games and fried the braincells of defensive coordinators from Virginia Tech to Florida State — that offense didn’t show up Tuesday night for a football program’s biggest bowl game in 43 years.
Fact is, the Yellow Jackets brought a Humanitarian Bowl performance to the Orange Bowl.
Tech lost to Iowa 24-14. The Hawkeyes were smarter, disciplined, tougher, more physical and, in this game, better prepared and better coached. The score would’ve been more lopsided but the defense held the Jackets in it, even equaling the offense in touchdowns.
Sure. Might as well turn everything upside down.
This makes two consecutive years Tech has fallen off a cliff in its final game. Does that qualify as a trend? Maybe a strong hint?
In Season 1 under Paul Johnson, the Jackets started out 9-3, only to get boat-raced by LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl 38-3. In Season 2, Tech went 11-2 the way to an ACC championship, and one month later got smacked in the face by Iowa.
Is it a matter of the Jackets simply getting dominated by physically superior teams? Or does a month of preparation for the triple-option offense make that significant of a difference for an opponent?
“Last year we just self-destructed,” Johnson said. “We had possessions [this game]. We just couldn’t get anything going.”
Iowa outgained Tech 403-155. The Jackets had 32 yards in offense at halftime. They normally have plays bigger than that.
Maybe it was the moment. Maybe it was the Big Ten weather. Maybe it was just an identity crisis. (Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz inadvertently referred to Tech as “Wake Forest” in his post-game news conference.)
For this, they waited 43 years?
The Jackets hadn’t been to a game this big since their last Orange Bowl in the 1966 season. Back on stage, their knees buckled. They had a false start on their first offensive snap. They’ve excelled at wrecking end-of-year parties.
It was five possessions before the offense managed a first down. It was nine before they scored. Tech punted its first six possessions. This is a team that totaled only 30 punts in 13 previous games (2.3 per game). It hadn’t so much as punted twice in one quarter since the Vanderbilt game on Halloween.
In the Johnson era, the Jackets have had only one start even remotely close to this. That came last season against Gardner-Webb. They had three punts and an interception on their first four possessions. That was with their third-string quarterback. This was Year 2, Game 27. And in a BCS bowl.
Iowa, like LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl last season, seemed to benefit from a month to prepare for Johnson’s offense. But it went beyond that. The Hawkeyes have the nation’s 10th-ranked defense. It showed. Their front seven dominated Tech’s offensive line throughout the first half. Their linemen were disciplined and didn’t miss tackles. Quarterback Josh Nesbitt seldom had room to operate.
The only thing more surprising than the early domination was the fact the Jackets trailed only 14-7 at halftime despite being outgained 257-32. Why? Because the defense was keeping the Jackets in the game with two turnovers. It doesn’t get weirder than that for Tech. Johnson: faceplant. Dave Wommack: visionary.
The Hawkeyes’ offense wasn’t smothered nearly to the degree of Tech’s. But they fumbled on their first possession and quarterback Ricky Stanzi was intercepted late in the first quarter by Jerrard Tarrant, who returned it 40 yards for a touchdown. (Tech summary: defense 7, offense 0.) Tarrant needed something to clear his conscience. He was burned on both of Iowa’s touchdowns in the first quarter.
The Jackets’ offense didn’t look nearly as anemic in the second half. They moved the ball 59 yards on their first possession, only to have kicker Scott Blair miss a 41-yard field-goal attempt. When Iowa followed with a field goal, making it a two-score game at 17-7, the Jackets appeared cooked. But suddenly, linemen were hitting their blocks and running backs were finding holes. Tech drove 71 yards to a touchdown, with Anthony Allen going in from the 1.
But 17-14 is as close as they got. A late Josh Nesbitt interception set up an Iowa score that iced it. After 11-2, you expected better. Credit Iowa’s defense for playing well. But the extent of this flop suggests it wasn’t just Iowa’s doing. And when something happens two years in a row, maybe it’s not an accident.