LOS ANGELES – Standing in a large crowd of weary, late-night travelers at the Los Angeles International Airport, I saw a familiar face.
Iowa receiver Matt VandeBerg was waiting with me to get on the same 1:15 a.m. flight to Atlanta on Saturday.
I was reluctant to approach him because it was just a few hours after Iowa’s embarrassing 45-16 loss to Stanford in the Rose Bowl, and I figured Vandeberg would prefer to be left alone. But he looked up at me, nodded and smiled.
We then started talking about the humiliation that had just occurred on the playing field, a game in which Iowa was clearly overmatched.
VandeBerg was traveling to Florida for vacation, to heal under the warm, tropical sun. I watched him grimace several times as he stretched his tired and battered legs in the concourse.
Being the genius that I am, I asked if he was in pain.
“Yes,” VandeBerg said. “But not just physical.”
Most of us won’t ever get to ride on the same emotional roller coaster that carried VandeBerg and his teammates and coaches for the past four months.
They experienced incredible highs as the first team in school history to finish 12-0 during the regular season.
But they also experienced the agony of defeat when the spotlight shined brightest.
The national pundits will dismiss Iowa as being a team that got on a roll thanks to a mediocre schedule and some good fortune. Some of them might pick Iowa to win the Big Ten West Division next season, but only by default.
It’s now up to the Iowa players and coaches to show that this season wasn’t a fluke built simply on circumstance.
“The coaches will go back to work tomorrow,” VandeBerg said. “Nobody works harder than them.”
VandeBerg made no excuses for the loss to Stanford, other than saying the grass surface was slippery. He praised Stanford for its execution, talent and aggressiveness.
He also praised the Iowa fans for their unwavering support, for showing up in large numbers and for staying until the bitter end on Friday. The ovation given to the Iowa players as they left the field after Friday’s game was truly inspiring.
“We have the best support in college football, hands down,” VandeBerg said of the Iowa fans during his post-game interview.
Several hours later at the airport, he praised the fans again.
‘I just wish we could’ve played better for them,” VandeBerg said. “They mean so much to us.”
His coaches also mean a great a great deal to VandeBerg.
That was obvious as the Brandon, S.D., native spent the next few minutes raving about Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz and the staff in general. VandeBerg also dismissed any suggestion that the Iowa coaches were out-performed by their counterparts from Stanford.
That was one of the reactions on social media to Friday’s lopsided defeat.
I understand fans being upset and frustrated that Iowa unraveled on a grand stage, and with so much on the line.
But to say that Iowa was unprepared after practicing for nearly a month is a convenient excuse and refusing to acknowledge that your beloved team got its fanny whipped.
It’s nonsense because there is no way to prepare for a better team that has an offensive skill player with transcendent talent and a supporting cast at the same level as the cast from the “Godfather.”
I remember saying “uh-oh” when Christian McCaffrey caught the short pass over the middle on the first play from scrimmage and then made the Iowa defenders look as if they were playing in sand and wearing ankle weights while sprinting 75 yards for a touchdown.
Stanford’s 16-6 loss to Northwestern in the season opener will just have to be filed away as one of life’s great mysteries in which there is no obvious explanation.
The time zone change probably had some impact. But the team that dismantled Iowa on Friday in the Rose Bowl likely would have done the same to Northwestern and probably every other Big Ten team except Ohio State and maybe Michigan and Michigan State.
If Iowa and Stanford played 10 times, the Hawkeyes likely would be saddled with eight or nine losses. I won’t give Stanford a clean sweep because any team can have a bad day.
The level at which Stanford performed on Friday should motivate the Iowa players, because as good as Iowa was this season, the climb back to elite status still is underway.
The challenge now is to keep climbing.
With over half of its starters returning, including star quarterback C.J. Beathard, Iowa looks good on paper next fall, at least by Big Ten West standards. But in terms of being elite, I’m not so sure.
Stanford exposed Iowa’s lack of speed, which I guess you could blame on the coaches for not recruiting enough fast players.
With exception to the glory years under Forest Evaskevski in the late 1950s, a lack of speed always has been a problem for Iowa.
Iowa’s lack of speed was apparent on McCaffrey’s touchdown reception and on his 63-yard punt return for a touchdown early in the second quarter. On the pass play, McCaffrey broke free thanks to an Iowa player, or two, being out of position. But it was McCaffrey’s speed that turned it into a touchdown.
Obviously, it would help if all-America cornerback Desmond King returned for his senior season instead of entering the NFL draft. But I wouldn’t count on it.
With or without King, Iowa has a solid foundation from which to build around next season. The fans also have been rejuvenated.
The Rose Bowl loss will hurt for a while. But at some point, the players, and the fans, have to move on and appreciate what was accomplished this season.
I reminded VandeBerg that he will be one of the senior leaders next season.
“It goes by so fast,” he said with an anticipatory smile on his face.
The circumstances also can change in a hurry.
As much as it hurts right now to have been crushed in yet another Rose Bowl, remember where the program was just a year ago.
It still has a ways to go as evidenced by the Rose Bowl drubbing. But the program is heading back in the right direction.
It’s now a matter of how far it’ll come back.