Fresh off a difficult loss, Iowa must regroup to face the two hottest teams in Big Ten West
MADISON, Wis. — The Iowa football team was just minutes removed Saturday from a loss that essentially erased its primary goal each season — a Big Ten Conference title.
Running back Toren Young stepped behind a podium to speak to reporters, gamely insisting that there was plenty of motivation remaining for the Hawkeyes (6-3, 3-3 Big Ten) after a 24-22 loss in his hometown.
“Anything can happen, and we signed up to play all the games on our schedule no matter what the implications are after the game, or the outcomes,” Young said. “We’re really just looking forward to the next opportunity.”
They’d better be.
Iowa’s next two opportunities will be contested at Kinnick Stadium, a big plus to be sure. But those games also happen to be against the two hottest teams in the Big Ten West. First is 9-0 Minnesota, one of the surprise teams in college football fresh off an upset victory over Penn State, at 3 p.m. Saturday. Then it’s resurgent Illinois, winners of four straight, already bowl-eligible for the first time under coach Lovie Smith, a team that will be coming off of a bye for that Nov. 23 game.
If the Hawkeyes don’t flush the bitter taste of falling short against rival Wisconsin for a fourth consecutive year, they can easily find themselves staring at a three-game losing streak heading into the season finale against a rival they’ve owned in recent years, Nebraska.
“They all count the same. They’re all important. And you never want to lose a game. That’s what you fight for,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, who will be tasked with keeping his team focused. “It’s part of the risk you run any time you go out there and compete. So it’s disappointing. But one thing about doing this is if you can’t handle that, if you can’t recover from that, it’s going to be even more disappointing in the future.”
Perhaps it’s a good thing the Gophers are next on Iowa’s slate. It’s another traditional rival, with a trophy on the line (Iowa has held onto the Floyd of Rosedale for four consecutive years).
But it’s also a team riding a wave of success not seen in Minneapolis since 1904, the last time Minnesota got off to a 9-0 start (the Hawkeyes lost to the Gophers 11-0 in that year’s season finale).
Iowa’s loss to Wisconsin dropped Ferentz’s mark to 9-14 when facing ranked teams in November. That shows you how infrequently the Hawkeyes have such chances, considering Ferentz is in his 21st year as head coach. They haven’t dropped two in a row to ranked teams in November since 2012, against Michigan and Nebraska.
So this becomes a statement game for Iowa as much as it does Minnesota.
The challenge against the Gophers will be to contain a passing game that is the best Iowa will see this season. Iowa didn’t have to contend with Purdue receiving star Rondale Moore, who was injured in that 26-20 Hawkeye win. But they’ll have to try to contain Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman, fresh off a 203-yard game. Opposite him, Tyler Johnson put up 104 yards against Penn State.
This is a big-play attack. And the Iowa defense is coming off a game in which it was gouged for pass plays to Wisconsin’s Quintez Cephus that totaled 52 and 27 yards, and run plays to Jonathan Taylor that totaled 42 and 36. The Hawkeyes hadn’t allowed a rush of more than 20 yards all season before Taylor ran them ragged en route to 250 yards.
“I think we played worse than we have in the past,” Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa declared. “We just didn’t play to our standards (Saturday).”
Iowa has been used to kicking Illinois around lately, five straight wins by an average margin of 29 points. But this is an Illini team that will make you play the full 60 minutes, that is finding ways to pull out victories like Saturday’s in which it erased a 21-point, fourth-quarter deficit at Michigan State. Illinois capitalized on Wisconsin turnovers and won that game on a last-second field goal.
“You’ve just got to motivate the teammates and tell them there’s more forward. There’s still some season left, so play for that,” Iowa senior defensive tackle Cedrick Lattimore said.
“You want to get to the best bowl game as possible. You’ve just got to stay together.”
That will be the mantra for Iowa these next two weeks. If the Hawkeyes hang their heads, Minnesota and Illinois will gladly kick them in the teeth.
“Can’t let that (Wisconsin loss) beat us twice,” Iowa defensive end Chauncy Golston said.
Isn’t that easier said than done, Golston was asked.
He smiled and answered: “We’ll see.”
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.
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