Photo by Michael Buckelew
MIAMI -- The Iowa Hawkeyes were counting down the final seconds in the latest in a series of improbable victories, and offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe stood on the sideline, trying to absorb what he had just witnessed.
O'Keefe turned to his defeat-defying quarterback, Ricky Stanzi.
"I can't remember coaching a guy who threw four interceptions before," O'Keefe said.
"Coach," Stanzi replied, "I threw five."
With Stanzi, it's easy to lose count. The junior threw 14 interceptions during the regular season, part of a high-wire act that had Iowa fans on the edge of their seats. He also led the No. 10-ranked Hawkeyes (10-2) to eight come-from-behind wins, which is why they're in the Orange Bowl on Tuesday night against No. 9 Georgia Tech (11-2).
"It's like being at the amusement park on the wildest roller coaster," O'Keefe said.
Stanzi will be back in the lineup after missing the past 2 games with a sprained right ankle that required surgery. The Hawkeyes were 9-0 when he got hurt.
"If he was there the whole season, they might be playing for the national championship," Georgia Tech linebacker Sedric Griffin said. "He can beat us, so we have to get after him early."
Freshman James Vandenberg filled in for Stanzi, who returned to practice in early December and said he's now 100 percent. But he hasn't played in two months.
"I hope to be able to go out there and pretend it's like riding a bike and nothing has changed," Stanzi. "If things are little rusty, I'll just have to shake it off and get on to the next play."
He has been shaking things off all season. The sideline conversation at the end of the five-interception game, related by O'Keefe, came after Stanzi went 3 for 3 for 177 yards and two scores in the fourth quarter to rally Iowa past Indiana.
A week earlier at Michigan State, he went only 11-for-27 but directed three late scoring drives and threw a touchdown pass to Marvin McNutt on the final play for a 15-13 win.
"With Stanzi, you never know what's going to happen," McNutt said. "He's like a boxer you can never give up on. He might get knocked down two times in the first round, but he could take you the distance and knock you out in the 12th.
"Even if we're down by 20 in the fourth quarter, you can look in his eyes and he hasn't given up on us. So we don't give up on him."
Stanzi has thrown for 2,186 yards and 15 touchdowns this season, and the Hawkeyes may need to do a lot of scoring to keep up with Georgia Tech's triple option. The Yellow Jackets rank 11th in the nation in total offense and have scored at least 30 points nine times.
But Georgia Tech also has allowed 24.8 points per game and 21 touchdown passes. To compensate for injuries, defensive coordinator Dave Wommack switched to a 4-3 scheme after three games, but while All-American end Derrick Morgan is a disruptive presence, holes in the Tech defense persist.
"I can't say that it has improved as the year's gone on," Wommack said. "We've got some kids that have worked hard, but we're deficient in some areas, there's no question about that."
A big night from Morgan would help hide the shortcomings. He has 12 sacks this season and was chosen Atlantic Coast Conference defensive player of the year.
Stanzi has been sacked 21 times and tends to throw better rolling out. Most of his interceptions were the result of poor decisions rather than inaccuracy, O'Keefe said.
"Some of it was him trying to make plays, feeling like he had to make something happen and carry the team," O'Keefe said.
The Yellow Jackets are well aware that Stanzi's prone to committing turnovers, but they also know he's tough to rattle.
"He'll make a mistake and then come right back and throw for a touchdown," cornerback Mario Butler said. "He's so poised."
Stanzi, a two-year starter with a 17-4 record, has led the Hawkeyes to four wins by a total of eight points this season. He developed a tendency to play poorly in the first half, but in three victories he threw a fourth-quarter touchdown pass to give Iowa the lead.
"He's a tough-minded, resilient guy, and kind of the embodiment of our team in that it might not be pretty, but you find a way to get it done," linebacker A.J. Edds said. "It's good to have him back out there, knowing if things do get a little hairy at times, he's a guy who can roll with the punches."