IOWA CITY, Ia. — Five times during his weekly news conference Tuesday, Kirk Ferentz brought up what he called the most “inept” Iowa football performance in his 18 years as head coach.
Five times, he referenced Iowa’s 44-7 loss at Arizona State on a miserable Sept. 18, 2004, night in the desert.
“That was the worst beating I think I've been involved with,” Ferentz said. “Yet I think you look at the 2004 football team, first word that would come to mind for me would be heart. That was what that team was all about.”
There’s a reason that game and that team has been at the top of Ferentz’s mind.
His 2016 Hawkeyes (5-4, 3-3 Big Ten Conference) are in a somewhat similar position, having being served multiple servings of humble pie in a 41-14, Saturday-night beat-down at Penn State.
The 2004 Hawkeyes were outgained by Arizona State, 511-100. Progress would be seen the following week against an excellent Michigan team. Iowa would lose the game in Ann Arbor, but Ferentz's players showed a lot of fight — Drew Tate’s helmet was ripped off at one point, yet he famously continued to scramble and unload a pass downfield.
The Hawkeyes wouldn’t lose again, finishing 10-2 with a co-Big Ten championship and No. 8 final national ranking.
“Offensively, we were not a juggernaut team (in 2004),” Ferentz said. “But we did what we had to do to win.”
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No coincidence, then, that Ferentz brought up Arizona State 2004 five times without being asked about it once: Iowa’s follow-up game to its embarrassing loss to Penn State (in which Iowa was outgained, 599-234) comes against … Michigan.
The third-ranked Wolverines (9-0, 6-0) bring plenty of confidence into Saturday night’s 7 p.m., ABC-televised, sold-out matchup at Kinnick Stadium.
Iowa needs to find some.
"Well," Ferentz said. "Confidence is something you earn."
One was left to wonder about Iowa's mental state after Penn State’s Saquon Barkley said Saturday: “You can see in their demeanor when they don’t want to be on the field no more.”
When you read a quote like that, it’s easy to wonder how the Hawkeyes' chemistry and leadership is going — the stuff we can’t see, and sometimes coaches can’t, either. The stuff that carried the 2015 team to a 12-0 regular season.
“I think you can always improve on leadership,” linebacker and co-captain Josey Jewell said.
Cornerback Desmond King, another co-captain, was asked about the intangibles.
The answer was a little concerning.
“It’s still a great family atmosphere here,” King said. “It just comes down to you’ve got to have guys on the field that want to win. You’ve got to have the will to play out there.”
Iowa senior cornerback Desmond King discusses Iowa's chances against No. 3 Michigan on Saturday.
King would back-track from that a little bit on follow-ups, saying that execution — not effort — was the Hawkeyes’ biggest issue in front of 106,000-plus at Beaver Stadium.
King said he hadn’t heard or seen the Barkley quote, but several of his teammates had.
“Obviously, that’s not what you want to hear,” linebacker Ben Niemann said. “But I don’t think we had given up. I don’t really agree with that comment.”
Defensive end Parker Hesse said he understood why Barkley would say what he did.
“I get it, that they were moving the ball on us,” Hesse said.
“Playing hard, that’s something we really take pride in as a defense: Just competing, no matter what the situation is,” Hesse said. “So yeah, he felt that way, that’s whatever. But I don’t see it that way at all.”
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Ferentz often channels history lessons during media interviews. I think it’s probably a window into how he’s approaching motivation for his team.
Another game he brought up Tuesday as humbling (albeit only once) was the 51-14 pasting at Minnesota in 2014.
That game might be an even more accurate parallel to what’s going on now. And even that team — which offensive line coach Brian Ferentz would later describe as having a “weak” culture — bounced back the following week to win at Illinois, then played toe-to-toe with West Division champion Wisconsin the next at Kinnick Stadium.
Does this Hawkeye team have what it takes to hang with, or maybe beat, a three-touchdown favorite in Michigan?
The players, they aren’t making predictions. The Wolverines certainly don't need to add bulletin-board material to their four- and five-star lineups.
“It happened to a lot of teams in the past, where a ranked team went down to an unranked team,” King said. “If we have our best game and they don’t, then that’s how it’s going to go down.”
Ferentz thinks all the indicators are positive: Guys are studying film. Guys are working hard.
Saturday, they have a chance at redemption.
Don’t expect the Hawkeyes to give up without a fight.
“Any time you go through a tough loss … teams can either split or they can pull together a little bit,” Ferentz said. “And I've only witnessed positive actions and behaviors from our players.
“They've got good work habits, good attitude, and they've got a lot of heart and a lot of pride.”
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.