The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

What If? | Ricky Stanzi’s fateful injury

The Hawkeyes were 9-0 and ranked No. 4 in the country at the time of the injury, which derailed any hopes of a national championship.
David Scrivner
Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi practices on the sideline during Iowa’s first home game against UNI on Friday, Sept. 4, 2009, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City. Stanzi threw for 242 yards during the 17-16 win over the Panthers.

Ahead of the 2009 season, expectations were high for Kirk Ferentz and the Iowa football team.

His 2008 squad finished the year on a four-game winning streak to end the season 9-4, highlighted by a thrilling upset over then-undefeated No. 3 Penn State.

Standout running back and Heisman Trophy finalist Shonn Greene departed to the NFL after the season, but Iowa returned quarterback Ricky Stanzi, emerging wideout Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, and many stars from a suffocating defense that ranked fifth in the nation in 2008.

Honoring these returning starters and the four-game winning streak, the Hawkeyes entered the season ranked No. 22 in the preseason AP Top 25.

Iowa fans were eager to see their team return to the field. Little did they know they would be taken on a roller-coaster ride for the ages.

Cardiac Hawks

First up on the schedule for the Hawkeyes was Football Championship Subdivision in-state rival Northern Iowa, who came off a conference championship in 2008 and always plays Football Bowl Subdivision opponents tough.

Iowa could never seem to get its offense going throughout the day but held a 17-16 edge late in the fourth quarter. The Panthers drove into field goal range, but the Hawkeyes blocked two consecutive field goal attempts as time expired to seal the victory.

Iowa was dropped from the rankings after the narrow triumph but continued to find dramatic ways to win, including a thrilling, buzzer-beating touchdown against Michigan State and comeback victories over Wisconsin and Indiana.

By early November, the Hawkeyes were 9-0, ranked No. 4 in the BCS rankings, and held the Big Ten lead by one game over Ohio State. Iowa needed to win two of its final three games to clinch the conference title and a Rose Bowl berth, which seemed very possible as two of those contests were at home.

But just as Hawkeye fans began to fantasize about a possible national championship, the dream season would soon end in gut-wrenching fashion.

The injury

After minimal playing time through his first two seasons, Stanzi was thrust into the starting role halfway through the 2008 campaign after Jake Christensen was benched.

Stanzi filled the spot admirably, throwing 14 touchdowns on 1,956 yards passing, becoming a major factor in Iowa’s second-half resurgence that year.

Through the first nine games of his junior season in 2009, Stanzi suffered through inconsistencies and turnover problems but always seemed poised when the lights were bright, evidenced by his game-winning drive against Michigan State.

Following their comeback win at home against Indiana, Stanzi and the Hawkeyes returned to the friendly confines of Kinnick Stadium to take on Northwestern, who came into the game with a mediocre 5-4 record.

Iowa quickly jumped out to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter, aided by a 74-yard touchdown pass from Stanzi to star wide receiver Marvin McNutt.

But then disaster struck.

After a Wildcat punt pinned the Hawkeyes back at their own six-yard line, Stanzi’s second-down naked bootleg attempt was read perfectly by the Northwestern defense, and Corey Wootton sacked Stanzi in the end-zone, forcing a fumble that was promptly recovered by the Wildcats for a touchdown.

Making matters worse, Stanzi was on the ground in pain, grabbing at his right ankle. He later hobbled off the field with the help of the training staff but wouldn’t return to the game and was replaced by true freshman James Vandenberg.

The touchdown cut the Iowa lead to three, and Northwestern rode the momentum to a 17-10 victory, ending the Hawkeyes perfect season and any hopes of a national championship.

Further tests revealed that Stanzi suffered a severe sprained ankle and would undergo surgery, causing him to miss the remainder of the regular season, though he could return for a bowl game.


Vandenberg remained the starter for the rest of the regular season.

During his first career start the following weekend against No. 11 Ohio State, he threw for 233 yards, including two touchdowns. Despite a solid performance from Vandenberg, the Hawkeyes fell in overtime, 27-24, ending their Big Ten and Rose Bowl title hopes.

The game was also noted for a controversial coaching decision in which Ferentz elected to run out the clock and play for overtime with a minute left instead of driving for the winning field goal.

Iowa recovered and shut out Minnesota at home 12-0 to finish the regular season at 10-2, earning a spot in the 2010 Orange Bowl, where the Hawkeyes dominated Georgia Tech, 24-14, to end the year 11-2 and No. 7 in the final polls.

Though the Hawkeyes ended the season on a high note, many fans continue to debate what could have been if Stanzi had stayed healthy for the entire season.

Iowa might have lost the Northwestern game with Stanzi, but the Hawkeye offense had already put up 10 points in the first half and likely would have scored more with Stanzi in control of the offense.

Against Ohio State, Iowa still managed to take the Buckeyes to overtime in hostile Ohio Stadium despite Vandenberg making his first college start. It is hard to tell whether the Hawkeyes would have won with their starting quarterback, but Stanzi’s presence might have influenced Ferentz to be aggressive and drive for a winning field goal rather than play it safe and go to overtime.

Even if Iowa finished 12-0, the chances for a BCS title game appearance would have been slim as national brands Texas and Alabama each finished the year unbeaten and played for the title. Nonetheless, the missed opportunity of winning a Big Ten title and earning a trip to Pasadena still stings for Hawkeye fans.

Stanzi remains a beloved figure among fans and was featured in the hype video for the 2023 football season.

Despite the sour end to the regular season, the 2009 squad is regarded by Hawkeye fans as one of the best squads in program history, and the Orange Bowl victory still stands as the program’s only major bowl triumph since 1959.

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About the Contributor
Brad Schultz
Brad Schultz, Sports Reporter
Brad Schultz is a sophomore at the University of Iowa majoring in Journalism and Mass Communication with a minor in Sports Studies. This is first year working as a sports reporter and he has a deep passion and love for sports. Outside of the Daily Iowan, Brad is a contributor for Saturday Blitz, a college football site, with his content primarily covering Iowa and the Big Ten.