UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Four games in 21 days.
For Iowa’s football team, how 2016 turns out will be a revelation of what progress was made from training January through August.
“The work you put in the previous months,” defensive end Parker Hesse said, “is going to be put on display in November.”
Not many feel great about Hawkeye football right now. The prohibitive preseason Big Ten West Division favorites could very well end up in fifth place out of seven teams if things don’t turn around.
But history is on Iowa’s side, at least for Saturday night’s showdown at No. 23 Penn State (6:30 CT, BTN).
The Hawkeyes were a 17-point underdog in Kirk Ferentz’s first trip to Beaver Stadium as head coach in 2000, and the team ended up winning in double overtime.
They went back in 2002 as an eight-point underdog and won again in (single) overtime.
As a three-point underdog here in 2004, they famously won 6-4 on the way to a Big Ten co-championship.
They were a 9½-point underdog in their last night game at Happy Valley, in 2009, and emerged a 21-10 victor thanks to Adrian Clayborn’s blocked-punt-and-touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Of course, maybe Iowa’s most famous upset of Penn State under Ferentz came in the 2008 season. That happens to be the season Ferentz has referenced a lot lately, with that group reaching the bye week with a 5-3 record — same as this year — and turning it on down the stretch.
“The one thing I'll always remember about (the 2008 team) is the way they responded,” Ferentz said. “… The sky was falling outside. It was doom and gloom everywhere you turned, yet those guys never flinched. They just kept pushing.
“The next thing you know, they ended up 20th in the country and won in a very convincing fashion down at the bowl game.”
That 2008 game was at Kinnick Stadium, with Iowa winning as a 7½-point underdog on Daniel Murray’s final-seconds field goal.
This week? Penn State was a seven-point favorite as of Friday morning.
Right in the Hawkeyes’ wheelhouse.
“Hopefully we don't break history,” Ferentz said when reminded of his underdog success (4-2 straight-up at Penn State). “If that is the case.”
The Hawkeyes haven’t been this big of an underdog in any game since Nov. 22, 2014, against Wisconsin. The Badgers were favored by 9½ points on that day, and Iowa delivered one of its best performances of that season in a 26-24 loss.
The last time Iowa was this big of a road underdog was in 2013, when Ohio State was an 18½-point favorite. That day in Columbus, the Hawkeyes gave Ohio State everything it could handle. It was tied in the fourth quarter before Iowa succumbed, 34-24.
So history says that Iowa will at least be well-prepared in this backs-against-the-wall situation in a heated environment, with a chance to win in the fourth quarter. As has been theorized and proven, Iowa performs better when expectations are lower.
The players, at least, seem mentally recharged after a bye week.
“These last four games,” Iowa offensive lineman Ike Boettger said, “are really going to define the season.”
Cornerback Desmond King boldly added: “Our goal is to win out.”
Before the season, I picked Iowa to beat Penn State in this game, 27-20.
Despite the circumstances — the Hawkeyes (5-3, 3-2) scrambling, the Nittany Lions (6-2, 4-1) rising to No. 12 in the College Football Playoff rankings — I’m sticking to that prediction.
Penn State is hearing how great things are; that its program is back.
Iowa is hearing how terrible things are; that its season is lost.
I’ve seen it many times before. You have, too.
Just when you’re ready to write off one of Ferentz’s teams — especially one like this with talent at key positions — they tend to surprise you.
I imagine a lot of people reading this article hope I’m right — and this season doesn’t instead go the way of 2012. That year's six-game slide began with Penn State routing the Hawkeyes 38-14 at Kinnick.
Time to “put everything that’s happened so far behind us,” Hesse said. “We’ve got four games, and we’re going to start with Penn State. Nothing else matters except for beating Penn State on Saturday.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.