Leistikow: Measure Hawkeye progress by wins, not style points

Chad Leistikow

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Earlier this week, I was booked to discuss Hawkeye football on an out-of-state radio station.

When we went on the air, the first question was concerning Iowa's ugly performance in its most recent game at Minnesota.

It caught me off guard. I hadn't viewed it as ugly.

In Minneapolis, what I saw was an Iowa defense finding its most dominant form since the middle of the 2015 season. Sure, the offense left points on the field. But overall, I saw progress because of what the scoreboard said at the home of the Hawkeyes' best 2016 opponent to date: Iowa 14, Minnesota 7.

The question, though, served as a reminder that lofty preseason expectations are rightly or wrongly shaping how some folks are viewing Kirk Ferentz’s 18th Iowa team.

And, halfway through the season, with Saturday’s winnable 11 a.m. game at Purdue next, I’m urging on-the-ledge Hawkeye fans to take a step back and stop worrying about style points.

Some of Iowa's most defining wins have been less than gorgeous offensive displays (see: 6-4 over Penn State in 2004). Here, Brandon Snyder had reason to celebrate Iowa's dominant defensive performance last week in a 14-7 win at Minnesota.

The Hawkeyes are 4-2, a game worse than the 5-1 record I predicted them to have at this point. They didn’t receive a vote in this week’s Amway Coaches’ Top 25, a month after rising to No. 10 after a Week 2 win over Iowa State.

So I understand why there is disappointment.

But remember, there’s plenty of football disappointment to go around this fall. Look no further than Iowa’s two postseason opponents of 2015.

Michigan State has taken a far sharper dive than Iowa since those teams faced off in the Big Ten Conference title game. The 2-3 Spartans have one of the worst offenses in the country (13.7 points per game), have been outscored 61-20 in their last two home games and own a dubious three-game losing streak.

The Rose Bowl winner vs. Iowa was a preseason top-10 team, but 3-2 Stanford has lost control of its Pacific-12 Conference fate after back-to-back drubbings by a combined 86-22 against schools in the state of Washington.

Same goes for another Pac-12 North team accustomed to success. Oregon, which has averaged 11.1 wins a season since 2008, is 2-4.

In the Pac-12 South, preseason No. 17 USC lost to Alabama by 46 points and is 3-3.

Preseason No. 4 Florida State is not only out of the national title picture at 4-2 after a 43-point trucking to Louisville, its ceiling in the ACC Atlantic Division looks to be third place.

More disappointment rests in The Bayou. LSU was supposed be in the national title hunt. Instead, the 3-2 Tigers are hunting for a new coach.

Greater disappointment yet can be found just two hours north of where Iowa is playing Saturday. Preseason No. 9 Notre Dame is 2-4, an official crisis in South Bend, Ind.

You could find levels of disappointment inside 90 percent of the FBS' 128 programs (exceptions being those ranked in the top 10 and unbeatens like Boise State, West Virginia and Western Michigan).

And even peering at the NFL – something Ferentz did this week after Monday Night Football – you’ll find the Carolina Panthers at 1-4, with largely the same roster that enjoyed a 15-1 regular season and a Super Bowl appearance a year ago.

In other words, the Hawkeyes’ 2016 season could be better (6-0 would be nice) and it could be worse (the Big Ten West title is still within reach).

But the story's still in progress.

Just like it was in 2004 after a 44-7 loss to Arizona State. Just like it was after losing three of four in 2008 to drop to 3-3. The only thing we can definitively eliminate from this year's final chapter is a spot in the College Football Playoff. And that was always a long shot.

Saturday, the second half of Iowa's book begins. Ferentz has reminded fans weekly that this team’s finished product will be determined by in-season growth.

It may not be what you want to hear, but at Iowa, it’s historically accurate.

“What's important for our football team right now is that we keep our focus on trying to grow and improve,” he said. “… And then the other part of the equation is you have to navigate through the bumps and the challenges that pop up during any season.”

Interestingly, Week 7 has often been a harbinger for some of Ferentz’s most revered and most disappointing teams.

In the good years: Surviving Penn State, 6-4, in 2004 on the way to a Big Ten co-championship. Pounding Indiana, 45-9, in 2008 on the way to a 9-4 season. Steamrolling Northwestern, 40-10, in 2015’s statement performance.

In the bad: Losing as a 19-point favorite to Indiana, 31-28, in 2006 after a 5-1 start. Falling to Wisconsin, 31-30, in the infamous 2010 fake-punt game. Getting rolled, 38-14, at home vs. Penn State in 2012, the first of six straight losses to unravel a promising 2-0 Big Ten start. And in 2014, a 38-31 loss at Maryland sent a 5-1 start spiraling to a 7-6 finish.

The Hawkeyes are favored by 12 points against Purdue (3-2, 1-1).

The Minnesota game was a must-win for Iowa’s repeat Big Ten West title hopes, and Saturday's is, too.

If the Hawkeyes lose?

That would be ugly.

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.