EVANSTON, Ill. — Iowa’s football team rode the bus to Northwestern.
That meant taking it home, too.
Four painful hours — from the shores of Lake Michigan to Iowa City — to dwell on an extremely disappointing 17-10 overtime loss in front of 40,046 at sleepy Ryan Field.
“It’s going to be a long one,” running back Akrum Wadley said after his team dropped to 4-3 overall and 1-3 in Big Ten Conference play.
Linebacker Ben Niemann anticipated a quiet ride home.
“We didn’t have the outcome we wanted,” he said. “A lot of guys are rightfully upset.”
Iowa didn’t lose this game because midseason all-American linebacker Josey Jewell was out with a shoulder injury.
The Hawkeye defense played inspired football without its injured star, continuing to serve up chance after chance for its offense to take control.
It never did.
A bye week hasn’t helped the toothless running game that is supposed to be the bedrock of Hawkeye football.
Iowa averaged 2.70 yards per carry Saturday. Three Saturdays ago at Michigan State, it was 0.76.
Just like that loss by the same score, the Hawkeye offense couldn’t come through.
Twelve possessions Saturday, one touchdown.
Poor play-calling. Failures in pass protection. Missed throws. Dropped throws.
“A lot of swings during the game,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “A lot of little things that add up and make a difference.”
And with a chance to snatch a win out of the jaws of defeat late in regulation … Iowa committed a false start on fourth-and-inches from just outside Northwestern’s 25-yard line.
The jump came out of a timeout, no less.
Sure, a lot of the mistakes Saturday were made by players in their first two years in the program. Young players are more prone to mistakes — especially on the road — than older ones.
“We just didn’t execute the way we wanted to,” sophomore quarterback Nate Stanley said. “Made some mistakes in the run and pass game.”
But at some point, mistakes can be traced to coaching.
For starters: Wadley needs to be running in space, not between the tackles. He didn't break a single run longer than 9 yards in the second half. Holes weren't there.
Like banging his head against a wall, Iowa offensive coordiantor Brian Ferentz continued to unsuccessfully run Wadley up the middle against the strength of the Wildcats’ defense.
“We’re a better football team when we can run the ball efficiently," the head coach said. "It’s always been that way."
You listen to Kirk Ferentz long enough, and you know he often talks about how his teams have little margin for error.
But on Saturday, Iowa had chances to be ahead by multiple touchdowns. And it squandered them.
This Northwestern team (now 4-3 and 2-2) was nothing special.
Save one 21-yard scramble with an opening the size of Grant Park in front of him, Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson caved under the slightest of pass pressure. There was no Austin Carr, like last year at Kinnick Stadium, to scare Iowa's secondary.
The Hawkeyes should’ve won this game.
And that’s why this is so puzzling, so painful.
“Bottom line is you either play good enough to win or you don’t,” Ferentz said. “That’s what we’ve got to figure out.”
Coaches surely were stewing about this one on the bus as much as the players did.
Out of a bye week, the Hawkeyes looked stale. That’s two post-byes in a row in which Iowa lacked what it took to win a Big Ten game. Last year was just against a much, much better team — Penn State 41, Iowa 14.
“They played really hard,” Wadley said. “… Hats off to them.”
So long, Big Ten West title hopes.
Sure, you could make a mathematical case they exist. But this Hawkeye season is on the ropes. With repeated performances like this, even bowl eligibility will be tenuous.
Will a four-hour bus ride of reflection send the Hawkeyes toward a resurgence — another beatable opponent, Minnesota, is next — or careening toward five more weeks of unfulfilling football?
There are no easy answers for a Hawkeye team that, right now, just isn’t very good.
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.