Iowa lost its football focus last week. Now, it's must-win time in the Hawkeyes' minds.

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa defensive tackle Nathan Bazata didn’t shy away from the question Tuesday.

Is Saturday’s game against Illinois (11 a.m., BTN) a must-win for the Hawkeyes?

“I would say so, yeah,” offered Bazata, a senior.

Michigan State's Raequan Williams tackles Iowa's Akrum Wadley during the first quarter of MSU's 17-10 win over Iowa on Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017, in East Lansing.

Iowa (3-2, 0-2 Big Ten Conference) carries a two-game losing streak into its homecoming game but has been installed as an 18 ½-point favorite against the Illini (2-2, 0-1). Still, Bazata made it clear this is no time for cockiness for the Hawkeyes. He was dismayed last week to witness some lackluster practices leading up to a 17-10 loss at Michigan State.

“I thought our energy was lacking, kind of getting to the ball was lacking,” Bazata said. “Having a close game (a 21-19 loss to No. 4 Penn State) and then kind of listening to the noise … you’ve got to be able to bring it every week.”

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz picked up on that theme two hours later during his weekly news conference, saying in his opening comments that his team wasn’t “ready mentally” for the kickoff in East Lansing. Michigan State grabbed a 14-0 lead in the first quarter, and the Hawkeyes were forced to try to play catchup throughout a bleak afternoon.

Ferentz opted to kickoff to open the game in order to have the wind at the Hawkeyes’ back, a move that quickly backfired.

“They took the ball and drove it right down the field,” Ferentz said. “It's just kind of a demoralizing fact. And it's going to happen, so you've got to come back from it. It doesn't decide the game. But you'd like to start out with a little bit better tempo and try to force them to punt the ball and give you a little bit of better field position.”

HOBBLED O-LINE: Boone Myers' nagging injury puts unit in a world of hurt

It has been nine years since the Hawkeyes found themselves 0-2 in Big Ten play. In Bazata’s mind, that puts this year’s team at a crossroads. A loss Saturday would extinguish any faint hopes of a Big Ten West title with half a season to play.

As the lone senior on Iowa’s defensive line, Bazata is making sure his younger cohorts know that the stakes have been raised.

“I think they feel the pressure. I know they’re feeling it from me, anyway, just kind of being on them, making sure they’re doing stuff right on and off the field,” Bazata said.

Tailback Akrum Wadley, another senior who brought a no-nonsense attitude to Tuesday’s media interviews, acknowledged the Hawkeyes have lost any margin for error.

“If we want to stay on track completing our goals, every game is a must-win from here on out,” he said.

The first step on that path shouldn’t be too challenging. The Illini have also lost their past two games, by a total of 46 points. They have started 11 true freshmen this season, the most in the nation. Iowa beat them 28-0 a year ago in Champaign.

After this, Iowa gets its bye week, a perfect chance to get recharged for a difficult second half of the schedule, which begins with an Oct. 21 trip to Northwestern.

“We definitely want to head into the bye feeling good about how we’re playing, just our energy and how sound we’re playing as a football team in all phases,” said Iowa defensive end Parker Hesse, a junior who will serve as one of the team’s captains Saturday.

Hesse noted you only have to go back one year to find a Big Ten team that suffered a pair of September losses and was able to rebound.

“Penn State had only one Big Ten loss, but they were 2-2 last year to start the year. And they ran the table and won the Big Ten. That’s just a living example that you’re never out of it,” Hesse said. “It’s going to start with this week, us improving. We’ve got to take a step forward this week. We’ve got to go out and play better. That dream’s still attainable, and that’s still the goal.”

Ferentz would prefer his players not look that far ahead, or behind.

“Hopefully nobody was looking big picture. They shouldn't be,” he said. “To me, the conference stuff, you worry about that in November, at least you start being more aware of that. But it's really simple. If you're doing well in the conference early, that gives you a chance to be there in November. If you don't start gaining some traction, that's going to be a discussion for somebody else.

“What we need to do is just worry about getting on our feet and doing a better job this week, coaching and playing.”