Leistikow: You want answers, and the Hawkeyes don't have them
IOWA CITY, Ia. — You want an explanation.
Right now, Kirk Ferentz doesn’t have one.
“Not sure of the answers,” the Iowa head coach said after a befuddling performance Saturday that had roughly 60,000 critics inside Kinnick Stadium and plenty more outside of it.
Hawkeye fans are salty right now — and they have reason to be, after a 24-15 loss to a Purdue team that was previously winless in Big Ten Conference road games and had recently lost to Rutgers and Nebraska.
This is now back-to-back weeks where Iowa (now 6-5 overall, 3-5 in the Big Ten) has looked inept, ill-prepared and outcoached after 60 amazing minutes of football Nov. 4 in a 55-24 rout of Ohio State.
Seriously, how does this happen?
“That’s a great question,” linebacker Josey Jewell said. “It’s something we need to figure out.”
I think quarterback Nate Stanley probably hit on the real reason, though, or at least one of them.
“They played really well all day,” Stanley said of Purdue. “They just played a lot harder than we did.”
“They were just ready to play more than we were,” the sophomore said.
Running back Akrum Wadley confirmed Stanley’s assertion.
“They outworked us,” Wadley said after the final home game.
From tight end T.J. Hockenson: “Every time you lose, there’s obviously a lack of focus."
All of that has got to be disheartening to every hopeful Hawkeye fan who paid for a ticket and braved the blustery conditions Saturday to see their team send off 18 seniors with a win and 6-1 home record for 2017.
A team that isn’t ready to play starts you-know-where: the coaching.
Iowa seemed to be out of sync with itself, from the opening coin toss to the decision to attempt a two-point conversion with just more than a minute to play.
Let’s start with the toss: Iowa won it, and on a gusty day with a game-affecting wind blowing north to south, decided it would take the football rather than defer to the second half.
Think about this for a second: A year ago in Week 11 at Illinois, Iowa felt a strong wind was so important to establishing field position that it chose to kick off both halves — and won, 28-0.
Saturday, it curiously took the ball with an offense that gained 66 yards last week at Wisconsin, and went three-and-out. Just a minute in, field position was already tilted toward Purdue (5-6).
Then, even after escaping the first half with a 9-7 lead, the Hawkeyes again let Purdue have the wind to start the third quarter after the Boilermakers chose to receive.
So, you’re giving Purdue the wind and the ball?
“That's kind of a jump ball,” Ferentz said. “And if you pick the right one, or at least if you play well off of your decision, then you look like you did the right thing. If you don't, you don't.
“But we were going to have to go into the wind one of the quarters. … The challenge is when you go into the wind, you've got to move the ball and at least get it out to midfield and give yourself a chance to put your opponent back a little bit."
I do understand the thinking — maybe you keep it close and have the wind in the fourth quarter.
It just seemed very un-Iowa. The Hawkeyes value field position so much, and they had a chance to take control of earning a seventh win by dominating the third quarter.
Instead, Purdue became the aggressor. With the wind, it zipped down the field for two rapid-fire touchdowns behind the throw-it-away-from-Josh-Jackson plan. (It’s amazing teams haven’t figured this out sooner, actually.)
Four straight throws to Anthony Mahoungou against Manny Rugamba on the first drive, then more of the same against replacements Michael Ojemudia and Matt Hankins on the next.
Instead of calling timeout, flat-footed Iowa coaches just let it happen. Finally, defensive coordinator Phil Parker got the idea to move Jackson to cover Mahoungou — and Mahoungou, going against one of the nation’s top corners, didn’t have another catch after that.
But it was too late. Purdue had a 21-9 lead and wind-aided momentum.
Even when Iowa did get a stop, its special teams failed.
A costly roughing-the-punter penalty led to Purdue’s first touchdown. More failures to just field the football in the return game proved costly, both in terms of yards and possession, in the case of Matt VandeBerg's muff.
Then there’s the offense, which has been so bad that it’s been outscored by its defense 16-13 over the past two weeks — hardly what you’d hope for in Games 10 and 11 from first-year offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz.
I asked Wadley afterward if there was confidence in what Iowa’s trying to do on offense. I figured he’d say what you’d expect, something like, “Of course we do, we just need to execute better.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
Fans, understandably, don’t understand how Iowa can roll up 487 yards of offense against a juggernaut like Ohio State, then average 162 the next two weeks — at a cringe-worthy clip of 2.7 yards per play.
Is this a two-week problem? Or a bigger one?
Was Ohio State just a fluke?
A lot of people, including myself, thought that Buckeye rout was a sign of a young Hawkeye team breaking through — showing that the pains of earlier offensive duds were learned from and improved upon.
"We're not looking for crutches or excuses, and we're not going to offer any up," Ferentz said. "We've just gotta do a little bit better."
A short week and a Black Friday game at reeling Nebraska (4-7) awaits.
It's still too early to assess this season. A win Friday and maybe a bowl win, and maybe 8-5 doesn't feel so bad.
But for the Hawkeyes, the trip to Lincoln classifies as a must-win. Because after what happened against the Ohio State, 6-6 would seem unpalatable.
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.