Three cool things:
1. Before there was Riley McCarron, there was Ramon Ochoa.
Iowa was down to finding wide receivers in Hubbard Park when the Hawkeyes turned to Ochoa in 2003. He was a fifth-year senior who caught five passes heading into his senior year.
When they needed him, he didn’t flinch. He simply performed. Not a star in 2003, but I don’t have to tell you Iowa’s seasons fall in the balance of little-used heroes doing something cool that was unexpected.
That’s totally Ochoa.
2. Whenever I read a Howard Hodges quote in these, I think, “That’s a grown man talking right there.”
Hodges said what happened. Remember, he rode with those great 2002-03 D-lines that set the table for maybe the greatest Kirk Ferentz D-line in 2004. We can debate that some other time, I just wanted to get to Howard Hodges.
I think you’ll be glad I did. Some of these guys have kids. I never know if they’re willing to talk about it. Howard was more than happy.
3. If I did see Iowa strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle’s bulletin board in the Hansen Performance Center, I don’t remember it.
Probably blew right past it. This was a couple of years ago now when the building opened and Brian Ferentz told reporters he was glad they didn’t have “key fobs” so they couldn’t get in. (Umm, I don’t want to get in. When I first started this beat, I used to hear about dudes who went through the team’s trash. I’ve never been that kind of crazy nut. I do not want to get into the complex on my own. What the hell would I do? Push-ups?)
I did see Doyle’s board in the old complex. The sad, leaky one attached to the Bubble (holy cow, Kirk Ferentz won Big Ten football games while recruiting players to the Bubble. It smelled like someone left sweaty undergarments in a parking lot in the high heat of summer, next to fish guts).
The bulletin board was pretty big and, whoa, the Hawkeyes seemed to face a few Heisman candidates.
I give the coaches who are in charge of messaging credit. That isn’t easy. It can’t be easy. And yet, you better stay fresh.
Quote: “When you go against our defense all week, it’s almost easy out there in games.” — Iowa OT Robert Gallery
Note: Arizona State would return the favor with oomph the next year in the desert. Stay to the end of 2004, though, Hawkeye fans. You’re going to want to see the closing credits.
Why No. 44? — This is too low, but we’re just stacking the memories now.
PREVIOUS COVERAGE OF THE GAME
Game story from 2003
IOWA CITY — Now, every quarterback on the Hawkeyes’ schedule becomes a Heisman candidate.
Raise the bar, they tear it down. Give them your best shot, experience your worst nightmare. Bring your Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback to Kinnick Stadium, cart home a broken, babbling bowl of goo.
First, Miami (Ohio) quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and his Heisman website took hits. Saturday, Arizona State’s Andrew Walter and his Heisman website took hits.
And hits. And blanket coverage. And more hits.
After Saturday’s 21-2 pasting of No. 16 Arizona State before 70,397 at Kinnick, every quarterback on the Hawkeyes’ schedule becomes a Heisman candidate.
“If they’ll buy it, I’m all for it,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said.
Iowa’s defense played Whac-A-Mole with Walter, while Iowa quarterback Nathan Chandler shook off an early interception and threw three TD passes to send the No. 18 Hawkeyes (4-0) into the Big Ten season 4-0 for the first time since 1997.
“Our defense and special teams didn’t play particularly poor. They did their part,” ASU Coach Dirk Koetter said. “Our offense stunk. It stunk, and that starts with me.”
That’s one way to put it. Another way to put it is Iowa’s defense dominated. And yet another way to put it is Iowa’s defense made ASU’s offense stink.
Walter threw for nearly 4,000 yards last season. After Saturday, he still has a long way to go.
Walter completed 25 of 44 passes for 160 yards, one interception and no TDs.
That sound you hear all over the Big Ten is sports information directors scuttling Heisman material.
“They didn’t want too much of us over the middle or running the ball,” linebacker Chad Greenway said. “We got to them early in the game. You could tell when their running backs touched the ball, they were trying to get to the ground.”
ASU’s running game needed GPS. You couldn’t find it anywhere.
The Sun Devils (2-1) rushed 21 times for 24 yards, a 1.1 average. They gained 184 yards total offense.
“I feel like we’ve got one of the best defenses in the country,” said Iowa running back Fred Russell, who had 27 carries for 154 yards. “I feel sorry for the opposing team. I feel really bad for them.”
The Sun Devils’ only points came courtesy of a botched shotgun snap from center Brian Ferentz that Ferentz hustled back and recovered in the end zone.
ASU finished the first half with three consecutive three-and-outs and began the second half with two more while falling behind 21-2.
“When you go against our defense all week,” Iowa offensive tackle Robert Gallery said, “it’s almost easy out there in games.”
Walter connected with fullback Mike Karney for a 16-yard gain and a first down on the first play of the second quarter. Why is this play significant? It took the Devils nearly 23 minutes to pick up their next first down, and they got that on a roughing-the-passer penalty.
On the same drive, they got another first down on a roughing the punter call. When Iowa was out of players to rough, freshman kicker Jesse Ainsworth missed a 43-yard field goal attempt wide right with 33 seconds left in the third quarter.
“When a Heisman comes in, we know he has the potential to change the game around,” said defensive end Howard Hodges, who had a sack among his two tackles for loss. “So we know we have to take the Heisman out of the game. We have to get after him. We have to get in as many licks as we can.”
The Hawkeyes also ended a three-game losing streak to the Pac-10. They won a night game at Kinnick for the first time since 1997. And they rid themselves of some of that sour taste left from the Orange Bowl, a 38-17 loss to USC, a west coast offense, a Pac-10 team with a real-live Heisman winner.
“We got a lot of monkeys off our backs tonight,” said Greenway, who recorded a whopping 17 tackles for the second straight week.
Chandler had a monkey on his back for about a half a quarter. He could have curled into the fetal position after going 2 for 7 for 29 yards and an interception in the first quarter.
Instead, with a lot of help from Iowa’s defense, the 6-foot-7 Texan stood up.
After safety Jason Shivers picked off Chandler to give the Sun Devils a first down at Iowa’s 21, sophomore cornerback Jovon Johnson returned the favor, stepping in front of wideout Skyler Fulton for his third interception this season.
“That was a major play,” Ferentz said.
After his first interception this season, Chandler went 7 of 12 for 103 yards and two TDs. He finished 15 of 23 for 154 yards, one interception and three touchdowns.
“After the interception, I didn’t hear one negative word,” Chandler said. “We have great team camaraderie. I didn’t hear a single negative word after any of our bad plays.”
With top wideout Mo Brown on crutches after last week’s ankle injury at Iowa State, fifth-year senior Ramon Ochoa became Chandler’s top target.
Ochoa caught four passes for 64 yards, including a pair of touchdown passes. With 7:43 left in the second quarter, Chandler connected with Ochoa for a 40-yard score, Ochoa’s first career TD reception.
“I think they came in wanting a track meet,” said Ochoa, who came into this season with five career receptions. “We wanted to make it a street fight.”
That’s a good way to put it.
Ramon Ochoa sidebar from 2003
Hawks find more playmakers
IOWA CITY — Get to know Ramon Ochoa.
He’s the guy who sat behind all-Big Ten wideout Mo Brown all last season. Actually, he’s sat behind receivers here at Iowa for five years.
He came into the season with five catches and little hope to see real, big-time playing time.
He’s from Los Angeles.
But L.A. is somewhere, so you can’t really say he came out of nowhere for a career game in Iowa’s 21-2 victory over Arizona State.
“I knew this year I’d get to play a little more, but I never thought I’d get a start,” Ochoa said. “Mo got hurt last week, so I got a temporary job. It’s still Mo’s job. I’m just moving in for a little bit.”
Not so fast, and we’re not talking about how Ochoa runs routes.
Iowa lost a playmaker in Brown last week. It found one, or maybe rediscovered one Saturday night. Ochoa caught four passes for 64 yards and two touchdowns. He also averaged more than 10 yards on four punt returns.
Against a ranked opponent, in front of a national ESPN2 TV audience, in front of a frothing Kinnick Stadium crowd, this is where the story goes into Cinderella.
“We’ve always known about Ramon,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. “I think everyone saw tonight what we see in practice everyday.”
Ochoa’s first TD catch — the first of his career, incidentally — gave the Hawkeyes a 7-2 lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
ASU’s defense sucked in on a fake to running back Fred Russell. Chandler fell back and threw maybe a tenth of a second too late, with the throw just beating reserve safety Mike Davis Jr., who subbed for junior Riccardo Stewart, who was in and out with a bum ankle.
Of course, Ochoa’s thoughts fell to what you’d expect from a practice player who’s getting his first shot.
“I’m thinking don’t let it hit your hands two times, don’t drop it,” Ochoa said. “You don’t really think that when it’s happening, but I guess now you do.”
Ochoa finished a drive that Russell started to give Iowa a 21-2 lead in the third quarter.
Russell burst left and tightroped the sideline for a 38-yard gain to ASU’s 11. Two plays later, Chandler found Ochoa on an out route toward the Iowa sideline and student section, which was a sea of waving yellow towels.
“This is a great guy who’s always working,” Chandler said. “He doesn’t get much respect, but after tonight I think he’ll get a little.”
This was a respect game for Ochoa, Chandler and Iowa’s offense.
“We knew with Mo going down we were going to have to get a little deeper at receiver,” Ochoa said. “We lined up a couple young guys. We tried to look at it as our opportunity and I think it turned out that way.”
Howard Hodges feature from 2003
IOWA CITY — It’s the single most creative, complicated, fulfilling, frustrating, engrossing, enriching, depleting endeavor of a man’s adult life.
Now, we could be going two ways here for Howard Hodges, 22, football or fatherhood.
We’ve seen the football every Saturday. For the past two seasons, the Iowa defensive end has been at or near the top of the Big Ten in sacks. Going into Saturday’s game against Illinois, Hodges leads the conference with nine sacks.
Not quite 6-feet-2, not even 250 pounds, you know there is an inner drive that fuels the fifth-year senior from Copperas Cove, Texas.
That’s Tiana Hodges, his 2 1/2-year-old daughter.
“When I play this game or go to school, I have to keep in mind that if I let myself down or set my standards low, I’m putting my daughter in a bad position,” said Hodges, who’s not married but lives with his girlfriend and daughter. “If I don’t go to class, if I don’t do my homework or whatever, I’m letting my daughter down. I’m not looking out for a good life for her. If I can try to play at the next level and I don’t treat my body right, it’s like I’m going to fail her.”
Maybe it’s coincidence, but Hodges’ life in football took off about the same time he brought life into the world.
He came to Iowa a classic ‘tweener — 190 pounds, not quite a linebacker but not quite a defensive end, either. He played both positions while earning honorable mention all-state at Copperas Cove High School.
“We saw him do a lot of great things as a redshirt freshman,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. “We weren’t sure where he was going to play, but we knew he was a football player. I think what you’re seeing now is more maturity than anything else.”
After putting on the requisite muscle — he climbed as high as 260 before settling at 245 — Hodges saw backup and special teams duty during his freshman and sophomore seasons. Late during his sophomore season in 2001, just when he made some headway on the depth chart, he missed four games because of a foot injury at Wisconsin.
It all came together last season.
Hodges made first-team all-Big Ten with nine sacks, 17 quarterback hurries, 11 tackles for loss and 62 tackles.
He went from ‘tweener mystery to full-service defensive end, a pass rusher and run stopper.
“The one thing that Howard has learned to do is take his athletic ability and put together technique, understanding pad level and hand placement,” defensive line coach Ron Aiken said. “That has allowed him to have the total package and that allows him to have success against a guy who’s 340 pounds, even though he’s only 240-some pounds.”
Howard really understands how to play the game and use his speed and technique as opposed to being caught up in how much he weighs.
“The “340 pounds” isn’t an arbitrary weight pulled out of the air to serve for an example.
In Iowa’s regular-season finale last season, Hodges stood up Minnesota tackle Jake Kuppe, a 6-7, 340-pounder, blew around his outside shoulder and then pulled off the defensive end hat trick, sacking quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq, forcing a fumble and recovering it.
Kuppe slapped his hands together and stomped the turf in frustration.
“I felt that I could beat him on the outside,” Hodges said. “I gave it a shot and it came though for me.
“For the first time in my life, man, I thought was going to score as a D-lineman. When they brought it back, my heart was like, awwww, no.”
That play — jacking up a 340-pounder and sacking the quarterback — shows Hodges could make a living in the NFL.
The operative word is “could.” He’s been a ‘tweener in college and he’ll be a mega-’tweener in the unforgiving NFL.
“I’d be surprised if he’s not in somebody’s camp,” Ferentz said. “If you get into a camp, then it’s in your hands. It’s your job to make it tough for them to tell you that you’ve got to leave.
“The trick is hanging on when you’re in that situation, getting somewhere, hanging on and working hard to develop. I think Howard will do that.”
Hodges answered the ‘tweener question once — five years and some 50 pounds ago.
“I really felt like (I) proved to the world that size doesn’t matter all the time,” said Hodges, who has 30 tackles and 10 tackles for loss this season. “It matters what’s in your heart and what you believe in.”
The NFL is in the tomorrow. Today, Hodges is a college football player at Iowa, loving every minute of every day he has with his teammates. He’s also earning a degree as an economics major with a business minor. He’ll graduate into the business world in December.
After five years of college football, shuffling papers doesn’t sound like too bad of a gig to Hodges.
“I want to work for a firm,” Hodges said. “If anything I want to go into the business world. I’ve played football for so long, I think I want to get away from the manual labor.
“I’d rather sit in an office and write some papers. That’s what I plan on doing, if football doesn’t work out. I’ve had enough manual labor. It’s time for me to retire if I’m not playing football.”
He’s also a dad, a good kind of manual labor.
Players with kids and players who are married are more and more common, Ferentz said. Iowa has counselors who help with time management and life in general, an essential for a player juggling college, football and family life, he said.
“The biggest concern I have, any player in our program has more than their hands full in terms of juggling their priorities,” Ferentz said. “Sometimes that can be an enormous challenge and sometimes it can be the greatest thing in the world.”
Hodges seems to have it down, the time management, the priorities, the greatest thing in the world.
“Looking at her, it gives you a focus,” he said. “It helps out big time.”
It’s the single most creative, complicated, fulfilling, frustrating, engrossing, enriching, depleting endeavor of a Howard Hodges’ adult life.
And it’s only just beginning.