Leistikow: Iowa's chance to salvage its season starts Saturday at Minnesota

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY – Iowa players insist that it’s the little things holding them back in a sluggish 3-2 start to the football season.

“We’re really close,” quarterback C.J. Beathard said. “A few plays away from possibly winning those games.”

A two-game road block can reveal if that's true, starting with Saturday’s game at Minnesota (11 a.m., ESPN2).

A victory to retain Floyd of Rosedale followed by another next week at woeful Purdue, and the Hawkeyes become championship-relevant again.

It really shouldn’t be that difficult, if the Hawkeyes can play crisp football for the first time since Week 2. Iowa is a slight favorite to dispatch the 3-1 and banged-up Gophers, and Purdue has lost 14 of its last 15 Big Ten games.

And add this feel-good stat to spark much-needed Hawkeye optimism: Iowa carries a seven-game regular-season road winning streak into this two-game set.

Iowa only sacked Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson once last week and the defense had just two tackles for loss. The Hawkeyes need to play with more fire, from start to finish, against Minnesota.

“We all come together, when we’re traveling with each other,” running back Akrum Wadley explained. “We’ve got each other’s back. And we do things the right way.”

Said linebacker Ben Niemann: "Friday, once we get (there), we’re locked in on the game. (We) don’t have to worry about anything else."

With laser focus from the start (for once) in an 11 a.m. game, Iowa can take a key step in reversing the course of this season. The past three weeks have all been morning kicks, and the level of urgency has been uninspiring. Purdue is set for 11 a.m. CT, too.

“We have come out flat,” Wadley said of the 23-21 loss to North Dakota State, ugly-looking 14-7 win at Rutgers and 38-31 loss to Northwestern. “Just a work in progress. I can’t pinpoint what, but we’ve got to fix it.”

Wadley and cornerback Desmond King were willing to say Saturday’s rivalry game at TCF Bank Stadium carries “must-win” status.

I’ll double down on that statement. The next two Saturdays are must-wins.

Winning both would:

  • Move Iowa to 5-2 overall, 3-1 in the Big Ten Conference.
  • Deal Minnesota, which has a luxurious schedule, an 0-2 conference start and extinguish any credible Gopher dreams of a West Division title.
  • Set up the opportunity for Iowa to effectively eliminate No. 13 Wisconsin from the West race, too, in an electric Oct. 22 showdown at Kinnick Stadium – with a pre-November bye week to follow.

Losing either of the next two games would knock the Hawkeyes in a less-appealing spoiler role, with bowl eligibility becoming a legitimate challenge.

But win both? Every goal except the College Football Playoff would still be on the table, with five games to go.

Minnesota is obviously the tougher of the two, with a scoring average of 36.2 points a game and a Hawk slayer at quarterback in Mitch Leidner. The Gophers should be 4-0, having squandered a victory last week at Penn State.

This is a good opponent, not a great opponent. The Hawkeyes can win this.

“We’ve been taking big steps forward in practice,” defensive tackle Nathan Bazata said. “It’s just not showing up in the games.”

The Hawkeyes haven't been finishing them, either. The last three weeks, they've averaged eight points and 104.7 yards after halftime.

This week is about playing clean, playing the full 60 minutes and responding to adversity.

Then repeat next week in West Lafayette, Ind.

Do that, and the Big Ten West championship can still run through Iowa City, as many predicted.

“It’s more fun when you’re winning," Wadley said. "So when we start back winning and when we get to celebrate in the locker room – we celebrate after a win – then it’ll get fun. Doing things the right way is fun. But nobody likes losing.”

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.