Leistikow: Ferentz's 2018 Hawkeyes will be defined by their stretch run
IOWA CITY, Ia. — In sports and in life, getting back up after being knocked to the ground can be a challenging thing.
Sometimes, when the initial dream fizzles, goals must be recalibrated.
So, here’s a new one for the 6-3 Hawkeyes: Finish the season in the top 25.
That’s not as sexy as “Rose Bowl winner” or “Big Ten Conference champion,” but it’s something that hasn’t been done a lot around here lately.
Only one of Kirk Ferentz’s previous eight Iowa teams has earned a season-ending ranking — the 2015 version, which finished ninth in the final AP ledger.
In total, six of Ferentz’s 19 Iowa teams have finished with ranked status — 2002 (eighth), 2003 (eighth), 2004 (eighth), 2008 (20th), 2009 (seventh) and 2015.
That’s 31.6 percent.
Finishing ranked isn’t easy as it sounds. It requires consistent winning and, usually, a strong finish. Iowa's 2010, 2014 and 2016 rosters were filled with promise, but ended with regret and outside the top 25.
Which way the rest of this season goes will define the 2018 Hawkeyes.
“Obviously, some things haven’t gone the way we wanted," said defensive end Parker Hesse, one of the team's core senior leaders. "But we want to be remembered as a tough team, and a team that stayed together ... and (that) they played their best football down the stretch."
After the Hawkeyes’ 38-36 loss to Purdue this past Saturday, Ferentz stood just outside Ross-Ade Stadium's visiting locker room. As he talked with reporters, he motioned toward those cramped quarters as his steel-trap memory recalled a loss at Purdue in November 2003.
“I remember pretty vividly, (linebacker) Grant Steen in there, really having a meltdown,” Ferentz said, “because we lost a tough game where we couldn’t move the ball.”
The 2003 Hawkeyes' third loss came in humbling fashion in West Lafayette. They trailed 27-0 in the middle of the third quarter and wound up falling 27-14.
After that, they wouldn’t lose again.
They returned home to rout Minnesota. They finished the regular season with a stirring win at Wisconsin. Then they thumped Florida in the Outback Bowl, 37-17.
“By January 1st,” Ferentz continued, “everybody was pretty happy about things.”
That 2003 team finished 10-3 — which is the new best-case scenario for these Hawkeyes.
“There’s still a ton to play for," senior receiver Nick Easley said. "We’ve got to keep fighting. We’re right there."
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First up: Saturday’s 2:42 p.m., Fox-televised home game against Big Ten West leader Northwestern.
“You can’t get to nine or 10 (wins) if you don’t win this week,” defensive tackle Sam Brincks pointed out.
Take care of Northwestern, win at Illinois, then beat Nebraska here on Black Friday —and the Hawkeyes will most definitely enter the bowl season in the rankings at 9-3. The 2003 team climbed to 13th in the AP poll prior to its bowl game, then jumped another five spots after dismantling Ron Zook’s Gators.
After back-to-back road losses, it may seem too optimistic to think this Hawkeyes team can get to a top-10 or top-15 finish.
We will learn a lot about this team Saturday.
How well have the Hawkeyes picked up the pieces?
Another team leader, junior quarterback Nate Stanley, made a great point. He talked about how many months of preparation have gone into making this 2018 season the best it can be. The early-morning lifts. Grueling conditioning sessions. Hours upon hours of film study. All those practices.
“Don’t let that go to waste," Stanley implored, as if he were talking to a teammate. "You owe it to yourself to continue to push on it and move forward. And you owe it to your teammates, too."
After the Purdue loss, some of the older defensive players gathered their younger teammates to make sure they're pointed in the right direction.
More than anything, Northwestern Week has become a mental challenge. Ferentz said his teams that have finished strong are the ones that continue to focus with fervor on game-week preparation.
Maybe this team can channel some of what happened in 2008, when a season-ending, four-game winning streak (including a bowl win) served as a launching point for a special 2009.
“No one’s flinching," Hesse said. "Obviously, it’s tough having your goals almost taken away from you, but everyone here is together. We’re still excited to show up at practice every day. Everyone’s flying around already this week in practice."
Oddsmakers like the Hawkeyes this week, establishing them as 10-point favorites against a Northwestern team that has the West firmly in its control.
“We need to come out prepared," tight end T.J. Hockenson said. "And we need to come out swinging.”
A win, and maybe Iowa jumps back into the top 25.
More wins after that, and it'll be just the seventh Ferentz team to finish there.
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.