Leistikow: Iowa's football finish will be decided between the ears

Chad Leistikow

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – There’s no point in worrying about what could have been with this Iowa football team.

The focus – for fans, players and coaches – should be on what still could be.

A 14-13 upset of No. 3 Michigan that hardly anybody saw coming changed perspective and the course of the season.

Suddenly, the feel is that the 6-4 Hawkeyes can beat anybody, anytime.

But as home losses to FCS North Dakota State and 5-5 Northwestern showed, the opposite is also true.

So how to get “Good Iowa” for Saturday’s 11 a.m. game at Illinois?

Iowa's defense, led by Jaleel Johnson (67) against Michigan, is coming off its best performance of the season. It limited Michigan to 201 total yards on a season-low 61 snaps.

The answer lies between the ears.

“I think most of it’s neck up, once you get going in the season,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said, in a bit of a rebuttal to the outside consternation about Iowa’s limited offensive schemes and defensive personnel. “Not that teams don’t improve – I’m not suggesting that – but a lot of it is just trying to get your head in the right place, whether you’re coming off a really bad loss or a really good win.”

Iowa middle linebacker Josey Jewell even used the “T” word to describe the situation the Hawkeyes find themselves in this week against a 3-7 Illinois team that just got throttled by Wisconsin, 48-3.

Trap game.

“We’ve got to come out determined and focused,” Jewell said, “just like we did last week.”

If the Hawkeyes don’t, Illinois will be ready to trap them six days in front of a highly anticipated Black Friday showdown with No. 17 Nebraska.

During his pre-Iowa press conference this week, a reporter started to ask Illini coach Lovie Smith about what he learned on film from the Wisconsin loss.

“What film? We’re on to Iowa,” Smith said, cutting the reporter off. “So that should answer your question. Didn’t really look at it, didn’t get much from it.”

Smith went on to say the Illinois team he expects to come out on Senior Day will be “more of the Michigan State version than last week’s game,” referring to the Illini’s 31-27 home win Nov. 5 against the program that beat Iowa in last year’s Big Ten Conference title game.

You can bet Smith, in his first year trying to lead the Illini back to prominence, would love to make a statement to his fans and players by beating a border rival.

Middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson, the Big Ten’s third-leading tackler, actually divulged that Illinois is going to take a page from Iowa’s approach.

Nickerson saw Iowa get embarrassed in a 41-14 loss at Penn State, the same day his team was knocking off Michigan State.

A week later, everything flipped: Iowa looked great, Illinois looked terrible in giving up 363 rushing yards.

“It’s kind of funny, actually. We looked back at what Iowa has done. And to come off the Penn State loss, going into facing (Michigan) and beating them," Nickerson said. “It shows it can be done. It’s week to week.”

Finish 1-0 this week.

It’s the cliché that Iowa’s 12-0 regular season was built around in 2015.

It’s what players (and fans) absolutely need to focus on now.

Sure, it would be nice to be flirting with the College Football Playoff again. But the Hawkeyes are realistically seven days away from an 8-4 regular season and the possibility of a ninth win in a bowl game.

You'd take that now, wouldn't you? If that happens, Iowa would tie the school record of 21 wins recorded in back-to-back seasons (set by Ferentz's 2002 and 2003 teams).

I like Iowa's chances Saturday. Ferentz annually reminds us that his best teams play their best football in November.

We saw Jaleel Johnson have the best game of his life against Michigan; same goes for outside linebacker Ben Niemann. Things are trending the right way.

It's supposed to be cold and windy at Memorial Stadium on Saturday.

May the mentally stronger team win.

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.