And thus ends one of the most disappointing, ragged and regrettable Iowa football seasons in recent memory.
It somehow seems fitting that the last futile drive ended with the whimper of an interception as frigid winds gusted through Kinnick Stadium. It's going to be a long, cold winter of discontent in Iowa City.
It's a massive understatement to say the Hawkeyes failed to cover themselves in glory this season. But really, if you were to have a clunker of a campaign, this year was the year to do it in the Big 10.
Arguably, the two best teams in the conference aren't even bowl eligible. Ohio State - with its long and sordid history of blatant and not-so-blatant malfeasance - will be sitting home with Penn State. All the "leaders" of that institution did was aid and abet a couple decades of horrific child abuse. Leaders and legends, ladies and gentlemen.
So instead we get a championship game between a 7-5 Wisconsin team that beat one opponent with a winning record (WAC darling Utah State, who missed a chip shot field goal that would have beat the Badgers) versus that other red and white team, the one with the delusional fanbase and surly head coach.
This bowl season is shaping up to be a bloodbath for Big 10 teams. So maybe it's a blessing in disguise that our million dollar man couldn't find a path to bowl eligibility (insert snort here).
Oh well, at least Maryland and Rutgers are coming. Who said money can't buy happiness? Certainly not Jim Delany.
Snark aside, my wish for this off season is to see the Big 10 clean up its act and get back to playing big boy football. Certainly the piles of filthy lucre generated by the Big Ten Network and shared among the athletic departments will translate into gridiron glory at some point, right?
The cliche is that it's always darkest before the dawn. If that saying is true, it's got to be around 4:55 a.m. in Iowa City.
Despite my snark and cynicism, I do see small reasons for optimism. Here is a brief list of possible bright spots to help Iowa football fans hold on to hope:
-Energy and enthusiasm. Unlike other recent late season skids (2010 and 2007, specifically), I didn't see any quit in the Iowa players this year. Sure, they weren't very GOOD at playing football in October and November, but the spirit was willing. Players were fired up, exhorting the crowd, cheering each other on and generally showing they cared. Now the job is to convert enthusiasm into wins. But at least it shows they want to play for this coaching staff.
-Ugly duckling defense. Nine starters are coming back on a defense that had its ups and downs this season. While they were knocked around pretty good by Penn State and Michigan, they also rose to the occasion several times, particularly against Nebraska, Michigan State and Minnesota. There is something to build on here, with a lot of young guys getting significant experience. Every excellent Iowa team of the Ferentz era has been built on a solid defense. There is work to do, but the pieces appear to be in place.
-QB2 Who? Most years, it would sound insane to be optimistic about your fifth-year senior quarterback graduating. But for myriad reasons, James Vandenberg's last year was a season to forget. Of course, we have no idea who will be flinging the ball next spring, but the mere prospect of change behind center is reason for hope. The best case scenario is whoever takes snaps - Jake Rudock, Cody Sokol, C.J. Beathard - has a better grasp of the new offensive system and a good chemistry with his receivers, backs and tight ends than James did. That's not exactly a stretch goal.
-A plethora of running back options. Yeah, I said it. I'm not superstitious. Iowa has a bunch of intriguing running backs coming back, ranging from the bruising and beastly Mark Weisman, to the slight and swift trio of Greg Garmon, Damon Bullock and Jordan Canzeri. All of these guys have logged time and all have the potential to be solid contributors. Couple them with a (hopefully) healthy offensive line and Iowa should be able to run the ball effectively.
-Finally, I think an actual losing season and no bowl game can be a catalyst for much-needed soul searching. It's impossible for Kirk Ferentz to stick to the script that his team is "real close" to being good, with only a few execution errors to clean up. The 2012 Iowa Hawkeyes were a bad football team. But sometimes it takes bottoming out to see that you were falling in the first place.
While I continue to question aspects of this coaching staffs' decision making and strategy, I do not question their desire or ability to be winners. Kirk Ferentz and his assistants have sound core football philosophies and a proven track record of turning things around. As fans, we will have to have patience to see it play out. But I, for one, am not abandoning hope.
Follow me on Twitter @ToryBrecht and follow the 12 Saturdays podcast on Twitter @12Saturdays