Leistikow: Hawkeyes have one shot at a clean slate

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. – Josey Jewell said goodbye to his family after Saturday’s stunning result against North Dakota State; then rushed off to do some studying.

The Iowa middle linebacker’s homework was self-assigned: What could he have done differently to prevent the 23-21 loss that happened a few hours earlier? The junior captain cued up the iPad and scrutinized Saturday’s game film.

“Just sitting in my room, just wanted to try to make myself better and see what we did wrong and try to improve it,” Jewell said. “Because it was bugging me.”

You can’t blame Jewell. This was a new feeling, a new challenge: trying to recover from Iowa’s first regular-season loss since 2014.

Iowa's Matt VandeBerg, the team's top receiver in 2016 until his likely season-ended injury, nearly started his Hawkeyes career as a grayshirt.

“It’s a tough time. It sucks,” Jewell said. “You want to know what happened.”

A quiet Sunday of body recovery and film study followed at the Iowa Football Performance Center, where this reminder still hangs in the locker room: “The Road To Indianapolis Travels Through These Doors.”

And that’s the realization this Iowa football team needs to have as it prepares for its Big Ten Conference opener Saturday at Rutgers.

“Our goals are still in front of us,” defensive end Parker Hesse said.

Iowa RB Akrum Wadley ready for a New Jersey homecoming against Rutgers

The North Dakota State loss has an embarrassing sting and raises plenty of major concerns, including offensive-line play, run defense and depth.

But Iowa’s 2-1 nonconference record has zero bearing on whether it competes in the Dec. 3 Big Ten title game at Lucas Oil Stadium.

What matters today is that Iowa is 0-0 in conference play, the same as the other six teams trying to deny the 25th-ranked Hawkeyes a repeat Big Ten West crown.

“As long as we’re improving, day in and day out, and playing better than we did last week,” quarterback C.J. Beathard said, “we have a chance to have a good season. It’s early.”

What matters Saturday (and beyond) is whether Iowa can show learned from the 17 mental mistakes it counted against North Dakota State — after making 10 combined in opening wins against Miami of Ohio and Iowa State.

And that doesn’t count this big boo-boo.

“We weren’t ready to play, obviously,” junior right tackle Ike Boettger said. “That’s the main thing.”

It's encouraging to remember that Iowa still has a veteran quarterback. The overall team health is improving. And now there's a fresh, albeit annoying, reminder that winning takes more than showing up on gameday with the better roster.

“It’s a wake-up call," cornerback Desmond King said. "You can’t take any game for granted."

Iowa takeaways: Status quo on defense, a new captain, Mitchell out

In times of adversity, Kirk Ferentz often provides perspective.

The 18th-year head coach tried to impart some Hawkeye history lessons during Tuesday’s news conference.

“Historically, September is a really big month for us,” Ferentz said.

But he wasn't reminding everyone about September wins. He’s talking about that month being imperative to the Hawkeyes making big jumps of progress.

“If we're not growing in September, that's a bad sign,” Ferentz said. “We've never been a dominant team by any stretch in September. I can't recall that time.”

It would have been hard to imagine on the 2009 team that skated by Northern Iowa and Arkansas State would end up gracing a Sports Illustrated cover and celebrating an Orange Bowl win.

If Iowa was going to suffer a September loss, as tough as any loss is to swallow, one to an FCS team last week is better than one to Rutgers this week.

And a road trip, a time to get away from distractions, might be just what this team needs.

Remember, the Hawkeyes began last year’s Big Ten West title march with a 10-6 win at Wisconsin.

The games that matter most start Saturday in Piscataway, N.J.

If Iowa plays cleanly and with urgency this week, it’ll return home 1-0 in the Big Ten — with October on deck and November in the hole.

“We have business to take care of,” Hesse said. “We’ve got nine more swings at it. So we’re going to have to bring it each time.”

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.

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