Leistikow: Inconsistent, promising Hawkeyes are who we thought they were
IOWA CITY, Ia. — During college football’s long offseason, I interacted with a lot of different Hawkeye fans.
There were exceptions. But young and old, avid or casual, the preseason expectations for fans surrounding the 2017 Iowa football team were surprisingly consistent.
The consensus went something like this:
“We’re probably a 6-6 or 7-5 team. Who knows? If we get some breaks and steal one, maybe we go 8-4. And maybe we can finally win a bowl game."
I had Iowa going 7-5.
The veteran journalists to my right and left in the Kinnick Stadium press box also pegged Iowa for 7-5.
Las Vegas had Iowa’s over-under win total at 6.5.
No, the pundits are not always right. Cue 2015.
But through six games? This is about what most of us expected.
And Iowa’s 45-16 win against Illinois on Saturday is kind of what 7-5 looks like.
Ivory Kelly-Martin fumbled in the red zone on his first touch of the game, but bounced back to score a touchdown on his last.
Nate Stanley had some more overthrows early but uncorked some sharp throws late to remind us he’s a young quarterback with a high ceiling.
Overall, Iowa sweated out a challenge from the worst team in the Big Ten Conference for three quarters before pulling away. And it now holds a 4-2 record with a tougher schedule ahead.
This is what the journey of a 7-5 team looks like.
“When you're not doing what you want to do,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said, “I think it's normal to get frustrated.
“What's important is how you respond to frustration and where you put your focus.”
That’s good advice for his players — and Hawkeye fans — at this moment.
At the halfway point, there’s stuff to like and stuff to be worried about.
Let’s start with the concerns.
I have no idea what to make of Iowa’s run defense. It can look great at times and it can be puzzling at others. The listless Illini gashed Iowa for 9.4 yards per carry in the first half. They averaged 3.5 in the second.
“We just had to make some adjustments at halftime, just things we were doing up front,” Iowa linebacker Ben Niemann said, pointing to some communication errors with the defensive line.
Speaking of the line, there’s not much pass rush at all. I thought it would be better. The front four couldn’t penetrate an Illinois offensive line that started four freshmen. Yikes.
Offensively, the run game still isn’t there. Iowa was officially 10 times better than last week’s 19 rushing yards (with 191 Saturday), but its longest rush was 18 yards against the Big Ten’s worst defense.
Now the positives.
Saturday felt like the first time the offense, defense and special teams — with two more brilliant wrinkles — worked well together.
“Definitely something to build on,” Niemann said.
Stanley’s been up and down but better than expected (15 touchdowns, two interceptions) as he replaced an NFL quarterback in C.J. Beathard, and there are more pass targets at his disposal from Nick Easley to Noah Fant to T.J. Hockenson to Ihmir Smith-Marsette. He's been fantastic in the fourth quarter, especially against Iowa State and Penn State — and again Saturday in a 21-0 finish.
“We just continue to fight," Stanley said. "If something’s not going well, we continue to grind it out and get scores when we need them.”
The defensive secondary has kept it together against a string of good quarterbacks. Joshua Jackson looks like an all-Big Ten cornerback at times, and now with Brandon Snyder and Amani Hooker teaming up at safety, the Hawkeyes are solidified in the back end.
Frankly, it’s hard to draw any overall conclusions about the Hawkeyes at this point — even though they are who we thought they were: A team on track to go 6-6 or 7-5.
And that brings us to the bye week.
“The bye week’s crucial,” said senior linebacker Bo Bower, who’s been through this routine before.
A key stretch comes now for the Hawkeyes. For two weeks, they’ll disappear from public view before re-emerging Oct. 21 at Northwestern — the start of the six-game, 35-day finishing flurry.
“It comes at a great time, too,” senior offensive lineman Sean Welsh said. “We’re kind of at a pivotal spot, where we’re trying to improve our fundamentals. That’s what bye weeks are for. You’re not really game-planning for anyone specific, you’re just trying to get better.”
It’s what Ferentz's best Iowa teams do leading up to November.
For perspective, I looked back at my game-by-game predictions for Iowa's season.
In August, I predicted Iowa would be 4-2 at this point; beating the teams it's beaten, and losing to Penn State and Michigan State.
At the end of the Illinois prediction, I wrote this: “And most Hawkeye fans exhale and realize that a 4-2 start is not a bad start.”
Sound like you?
Right now, that’s where I’m at. I’m looking at the positive side of this, that maybe if the Hawkeyes make some headway during the bye week, they've got a chance to be 7-5 or better.
The schedule’s going to get tougher. November will be a bear.
But at 4-2, there's hope surrounding a team that's now played 10 true freshmen and is counting on several other second-year players like Stanley, Fant, Hockenson, Hooker and Alaric Jackson,
"There's always room for improvement, but I felt like we grew today," Ferentz said. "It was tough in the first half, and credit goes to Illinois.
"But ... as we pressed on and pushed on we kept playing. That's one thing this team has done pretty well for six games. They keep playing. They keep fighting."
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.