Leistikow: Why winning matters for Iowa, even as 3-TD underdog

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. — For the first time since Kirk Ferentz’s first season here in 1999, the Iowa football team is a home underdog by more than 20 points.

That’s the staggering backdrop for the Hawkeyes’ 7 p.m., ABC-televised Saturday clash with No. 3 Michigan at a sold-out Kinnick Stadium. To be a more precise, the line was Michigan minus-21.5 as of Friday morning.

An Iowa fan looks on as Wisconsin's defense shut down Iowa in the waning minutes of a 17-9 Hawkeye loss on Oct. 22. Iowa has scored just 23 points and rushed for 113 yards in its last two games.

It’s unsettling for Hawkeye fans, especially less than 12 months removed from a 12-0 regular season that generated so much program momentum.

A friend of mine (a father of four whom I would describe as a loyal, educated, positive Hawkeye fan) purchased eight tickets for this game a while back. It was going to be a family event. But as it became clear in the last couple weeks that Iowa’s fortunes in this game looked bleak, my friend decided to sell his $85-a-pop tickets.

To him, forking over $680 to attend the game wasn’t going to be worth the expected enjoyment payoff. And nobody in their right mind could blame a family man for making that decision on a budget.

Winning matters.

So a new challenge for Ferentz, athletics director Gary Barta and the Hawkeyes is already simmering. A year after riding a turnaround 2015 season and an excellent 2016 home schedule to revive reeling ticket sales — Saturday’s game will mark the fourth sellout at Kinnick after just two in the previous three years — indicators of fan apathy are again settling in.

Just a few weeks ago, the cheapest tickets for this game at were selling for $150 apiece. As of Friday morning, seats could be had for $60.

The very best thing that could happen to inject energy back into Iowa's fan base?

A stunner against 9-0 Michigan to ruin the season for Jim Harbaugh — the coach who swooped in on National Signing Day 2015 to snag Iowa running back commitment Karan Higdon.

There's no better stage — in front of Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit and a national-TV audience — for the Hawkeyes to convince their fans (and potential recruits) that they're on the right track.

“I would say, 'Don’t give up on us. We’re still fighting',” junior linebacker Ben Niemann said when asked about what his message would be to on-the-fence Hawkeye fans. “Everybody in this program? We’re still working. We haven’t given up. We want to finish this thing strong. We would love to have their support.”

Parker Hesse, a sophomore defensive end, has become one of the most candid interviews on the team.

Here's what he said about what's going on behind closed doors.

“The people we have in this program — the coaching staff, the players — (are) very competitive people; very resilient people,” Hesse said. “So, yeah, things have been up and down at times this year. But we’re all about improving from it.”

I asked Ferentz on Tuesday what his message to disappointed Hawkeye fans would be.

“Well, I think everybody was feeling better a year ago at this time. We were 9-0 and we had momentum; everything was going well,” Ferentz said. “And the bottom line is, usually it's the very little things— especially with our team, historically. ... For us, we really have to be doing everything right.

“When I look at our team and look at the way they operate, all you can do as a coach is ask them to do their best. And I think our guys are doing that.”

Clearly, their best hasn’t been good enough. They've lost three straight at Kinnick Stadium. At 5-4 overall, the favorites to finish first in the Big Ten Conference’s West Division appear more destined for fifth.

But there are three games to go. A road game at 3-6 Illinois and the home finale against 7-2 Nebraska follow this one.

“It’s a three-game season right now,” quarterback C.J. Beathard said. “We’ve got an opportunity to win all three of them.”

Some Hawkeye fans read that and laugh.

They can't see a path to victory against Michigan, which is a 1-to-15 favorite to win straight-up on some betting websites. That means you’d have to wager $150 on Michigan to win $10.

An impossible task for Iowa?

Hesse found motivation while texting his brother Monday. He thumbed into his phone: “This just in: Michigan’s pretty good.”

“The only thing he texted back: 'When Appalachian State beat 'em (in 2007), they were 35-point underdogs',” Hesse said. “I don’t know if he meant it to be motivational to me or if he was just saying it because it was a fact. But it really struck me that that’s why sports are so cool.

“It doesn’t matter who they are. It doesn’t matter if they’ve won 55 straight games. Saturday night, both teams line up, and both teams have to play the game. They have to prove it, and we have the opportunity to take something from them.”

I’m not counting on it.

Neither is my friend.

But you never know. There's already been one monumental upset involving the state of Michigan this week.

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.