This is my column for Sunday’s Gazette:
IOWA CITY — You do not quit.
Iowa’s football team got bullied by big, bad, third-ranked Penn State for most of three quarters Saturday in Kinnick Stadium. The Hawkeyes’ offense was on the field in the first half less than the school’s marching band spent on it before the game.
That worm eventually turned. The only 10 points scored in the fourth period were Iowa points.
You do not quit.
Hawkeye quarterback Ricky — let’s call him Rick from here on out; he grew up Saturday — Stanzi handed the ball to the Nittany Lions inside the Iowa 30-yard line twice in the third quarter, leading to 10 easy Penn State points. That put his team in a 23-14 hole and would have drained the spirit out of many squads that were already fighting an uphill battle.
The Hawkeye defense allowed nothing that mattered from that point forward.
You do not quit.
Iowa had four losses this season, all by less than a touchdown, each with its own form of tantalizing torture. It didn’t know how to win tight games, didn’t know how to perform on offense in the red zone when it was time to close a deal.
That same team went 57 yards in 15 plays on its final drive Saturday, couldn’t have managed the clock much better, and gave itself an opportunity to win instead of making a fatal misstep along the way.
You do not quit.
A walk-on place-kicker from Iowa City named Daniel Murray missed a 35-yard field goal at Pittsburgh in September. His Iowa team lost that game by one point and he lost his half of the job of kicking field goals. He hadn’t been granted another opportunity until six seconds remained Saturday with his team behind, 23-21.
Murray faced a 31-yard try after a PSU timeout that couldn’t possibly freeze a kicker who was already frozen from the wicked wind that blew through Kinnick all day. He was straighter than a laser and every bit as piercing to the formerly unbeaten guests.
Iowa 24, Penn State 23.
“The only way to get over the hump,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said, “is to push over the hump.”
This is why sports matter. It’s not so much the won-lost records, the bowl implications, and all the BCS hoo-hah. It’s the chilling, thrilling, transcendent moments like this one. It’s the days that make you feel something. These were moments and this was a day that each of the 70,000 fans in attendance will cling to as long as they have memories.
“They kept fighting,” superb Iowa defensive tackle Matt Kroul said, and he was talking about those fans. Then he added, “We kept fighting.
“I’ll remember this game the rest of my life.”
Oh, my. My oh my oh my. Maybe America looked at this and only saw Penn State squandering a lead, a perfect record, and all hope of squeezing into the national-title game. Look a little harder.
See an Iowa squad that got its motor warmer as a raw day grew colder. See an unranked, unheralded, undistinguished club show why it lifts weights early March mornings, why its quarterbacks and receivers work on their timing in the heat of July, why they put up with all those consecutive autumn Sundays waking up with aches and bruises and things that sometimes are much worse.
Why were the Hawks down only 13-7 at halftime when they had basically been getting obliterated? Why didn’t they let what was left of their season blow away in that nasty north wind when Stanzi fumbled away a center snap and set up the Penn State touchdown that made it 23-14?
Why didn’t the smallish kicker not vanish altogether after coming home from Pittsburgh, not knowing if he’d ever get another shot at kicking for three points with freshman Trent Mossbrucker doing a capable job in that role?
“(Iowa’s coaches) just told me to always stay ready,” Murray said, “so I took it seriously and stayed ready every game. Trent will come out next game and he’ll probably do well with field goals again.”
All the money spent on recruiting, all the money that hangs on the results of these games for the universities and their coaches. And one of those coaches, Ferentz, made up his mind with 30 seconds left in the game to go with a kid who not only walked on to his team, but passed up a scholarship from Kentucky. To play soccer.
This is how a national-title contender is eliminated. This is how the crowning moment to Iowa’s season is made, how a few years of mediocrity yielded to a lightning bolt of a kick that capped an electric final drive.
Murray went all Brandi Chastain after the boot. He left his shirt on, but sprinted in the opposite direction of the goal post and did a two-knees soccer slide. He netted 118 goals for Regina High. But now he’s a full-time football player, one who went directly into Hawkeye lore under a dark sky.
A few thousand students danced on the field after Murray’s last-second squib kick was recovered by a Hawkeye. They were dressed in green to honor ever-sensational running back Shonn Greene. From high up in the press box, the students looked like merry leprechauns.
It was fitting. A wee Irish lad had kicked the three points that defeated a national football giant after his teammates had done the heavy lifting to set up his moment. All of them could have folded at various points Saturday and earlier in the season.
“We’ve all had our hardships,” Ferentz said. “We had some bumps on the road, that type of thing, had some unwanted results.
“But in sports it’s a different life. You just keep pressing forward.”
You do not quit. See what you could miss out on if you do.