WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz made the decision to start chasing points early in the third quarter Saturday because he felt he was going to need 40 or more to be able to top Purdue.
It turns out that 38 would have been enough to force overtime. And that’s how many the Hawkeyes would have had if they had done the conventional thing and kicked an extra point with 9 minutes and 33 seconds left in the third quarter trailing 28-23. Instead, a two-point conversion pass failed. So did a fourth-quarter one after Iowa had taken its lone lead.
All of that meant Iowa was ahead 36-35, not 38-35, when Purdue got the ball back for one last drive at midfield. That meant Spencer Evans’ 25-yard field goal with 8 seconds left was enough to give the Boilermakers a victory, rather than a tie.
These are the gut decisions a football coach has to make: When to start thinking about the end game? Not until the fourth quarter? Early in the third, as Ferentz did?
Afterward, the Hawkeye coach, in his 20th season leading the team, seemed to indicate that his aggressiveness was built into the game plan against a high-powered Boilermakers offense.
“I figured we were going to need the points and I think it played out that way. The more points the better,” Ferentz said when asked about his decision to try to cut Purdue’s lead to 28-25 with more than 24 minutes remaining to play.
“This thing, I thought it was going to be in the 40s, quite frankly, at that point. So we were going to try to score every point we could.”
Credit Purdue for putting that kind of pressure on its opponents. Every college football fan in America saw what happened the last time the Boilermakers took the field at Ross-Ade Stadium — they left it surrounded by a crush of fans after a crushing 49-20 victory over Ohio State.
“The first half, they had three possessions where they had touchdown drives. Big plays popped up. That’s been the season for them,” Ferentz continued.
“When you play them, that’s kind of what you’re fighting. We didn’t do a good enough job of minimizing those things. And if you do, you’ve got a chance. And if you don’t, you pay the price.”
Ferentz had shown a little daring on the touchdown that preceded his two-point decision — it was a fourth-and-2 play from the Purdue 4-yard line. A field goal would have brought the Hawkeyes within 28-20 — still in striking distance. But Iowa had already settled for a 34-yard Miguel Recinos three-pointer in the first half, only to see Purdue repeatedly put up seven points.
Instead, Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley ran a play-action pass to perfection, lofting a 4-yard score to tight end T.J. Hockenson.
Recinos was on the field, ready to make what likely would have been his 31st consecutive successful extra point this season.
“I wasn’t really sure what we were going to decide. It’s always up to the head man,” Recinos said. “It’s one of those decisions that, if you get right, you’re a genius. It’s a really, really hard call to make. So I was out there just in case.
“I knew that if we cut it to three, then there’s a chance that I would get a field goal to tie it up.”
Stanley’s pass to Brandon Smith in the back of the end zone fell incomplete. Recinos never got his chance.
Iowa center Keegan Render later said what the entire coaching staff must have been thinking.
“Ohio State had to settle for a couple field goals here and there, and we knew that these guys could score a bunch — we knew we were going to have to score,” Render said.
Hence, the never-ending hunger for points by the Hawkeyes. Was it too soon to be thinking about two-point conversions? Would the game really have played out differently if Ferentz had played it safe?
Those are questions for the Sunday-morning sages now.
Iowa tight end Noah Fant felt the play calls on both two-point attempts (the second one also ended up being an incompletion intended for Smith) were sound.
“That’s a tough one, especially with how close the game came down to,” Fant said. “Looking back on it, I feel like we wish we could have had those back.”
That’s not how sports works, of course. Iowa can’t get back the decision or the execution.
And the score will forever be in the record books as a two-point loss.