WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — The pain was obvious in Jake Gervase’s eyes. The frustration was apparent in T.J. Hockenson’s voice.
This season didn’t go the way the Iowa football players thought it would go.
They believed they were the best team in the Big Ten Conference’s West Division.
They’ve had plenty of chances to prove they are.
But Saturday’s latest crushing loss — 38-36 to Purdue on a field goal with 8 seconds left — underscored how the Hawkeyes haven’t been able to come through in the 2018 moments that mattered most.
“It’s not for a lack of effort, a lack of caring or lack of preparation throughout the week,” Gervase said. “It’s just getting outplayed and not making those critical plays.”
Gervase, a fifth-year senior, knows full well the opportunity that was lost here before 60,716 fans at Ross-Ade Stadium.
He knows that, barring a mathematical miracle in the standings, he won’t win a Big Ten championship with his Hawkeye brothers.
Their road to Indianapolis ended Saturday — 65 miles northwest of Lucas Oil Stadium, site of the Dec. 1 conference title game.
In both of Iowa’s two divisional losses, it led into the final minute. Wisconsin silenced Kinnick Stadium on a touchdown pass with 52 seconds to go on Sept. 22. Purdue’s Spencer Evans gave the final twist of the knife with his 25-yard field goal with 8 seconds left to play Saturday.
Multiple last-gasp stings that foil your chances at playing for a Big Ten title? Those won't go away for a while.
That’s why the postgame tone felt and sounded different than Iowa’s previous losses.
Hawkeye players knew that if they had won this game and next week’s against Northwestern, their chances at a Big Ten West title were very good.
They're searching for answers.
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Hockenson quoted his position coach after the game. Brian Ferentz tells his players, “Life’s not always fair, but football is.” (Although you could certainly insert your bad-officiating joke here.)
In other words, you are what your record says you are. And the Hawkeyes are now a 6-3 team and 3-3 in Big Ten play, just like they were a year ago with three games remaining.
Except that last year, Iowa was coming off a defining win against Ohio State that signaled the program was on an upward trajectory.
Now, after back-to-back road losses in which Iowa frittered away its chances to win, it's hard to say which way this train is headed.
“We need to figure out what we’re doing, what’s going on,” Hockenson said, through an almost blank stare. “Losses don’t happen by accident. There’s something going on during the week that we need to figure out and fix it.”
That’s an internal question.
Externally, the lack of winning plays are obvious.
Against Wisconsin, they couldn’t get a key stop.
Against Penn State, they were doomed by a goal-line interception.
Against Purdue, they were burned by the big plays.
Iowa is now 1-6 in Big Ten games decided by single digits in the past two seasons.
Give Boilermakers head coach Jeff Brohm a lot of credit. He identified what his players do well (run fast downfield) and what Iowa’s defense does well (rush the passer) and built his game plan around that.
He also has a terrific quarterback in David Blough, who could throw perfect, high-lofting balls into the hands of his play-making wide receivers off quick pass drops.
“They couldn’t block us up front,” Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa said. “I think we dominated the line of scrimmage all day long. There’s only so much you can do when they catch the ball and lob it up there.”
Brohm also was the better gameday coach than Kirk Ferentz on Saturday.
Brohm made a terrific, gutsy call to go for fourth-and-2 from Iowa’s 30-yard line — rather than try a long field goal, down 36-35 — in the final minutes. A well-designed quarterback sweep gained seven yards, and that helped Purdue grind the clock so that Iowa couldn’t get another offensive possession.
Like at Penn State, the Hawkeyes didn’t play their best game Saturday.
Yet there they were, with a chance to win anyway.
It’s no wonder Kirk Ferentz used the word “drained” to describe his players afterward, acknowledging the challenge ahead of picking up the pieces.
How do you respond emotionally after your Big Ten championship dreams die?
You start “building for the next one,” Ferentz said.
“If this door shuts, then we’re working on the next one,” he said. “The guys, our seniors, will help us get to the next step. And we’ve still got three ballgames left. We’ve got to find a way to win at home next week, first and foremost.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.