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Iowa right tackle Tristan Wirfs discusses moving forward off the team's third straight loss. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — Despite the program’s first three-game losing streak in four years, the Iowa football season isn’t sunk.

That was the message coming from the 6-4 Hawkeyes after a spirited Tuesday practice.

“Today, we had such a good practice. The tempo is good,” right tackle Tristan Wirfs said. “Everyone’s kind of getting back to having fun. Everyone’s been a little tense.”

The Oct. 27 loss at Penn State seemed to linger emotionally, more than players (or fans) would have liked. There was a postgame sense after a double-digit lead got away that there was a big missed opportunity in Happy Valley.

Back-to-back losses in Big Ten West Division games, of course, followed: to Purdue and Northwestern by a combined six points. Iowa led in the fourth quarter of both games.

Wide receiver Nick Easley spoke Tuesday about the team continuing to practice well — a theme trumpeted by head coach Kirk Ferentz all season.

Seniors such as Easley, Parker Hesse and Ross Reynolds have seen one loss become two, and two become three. They don’t want to be remembered as a 6-6 team. They seem confident they won’t be.

Iowa is a 16-point favorite for Saturday’s game at Illinois (2:30 p.m., Big Ten Network).

“It’s good to see the team staying together,” Reynolds said, “and not falling apart.”

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Parker Hesse: 'It just comes down to focusing each and every play' Dargan Southard, msouthard@gannett.com

It’s easy during these losses to forget just how dynamic Ihmir Smith-Marsette has been as a kick returner. Five of Iowa’s 15 plays that have covered 40-plus yards this season are Smith-Marsette kickoff returns.

Of Big Ten players with at least one return per game, Smith-Marsette is the leader at 31.9 yards per runback. The stringy sophomore has returns of 40, 43, 49, 49 and 60 yards this season.

“Before I go out there,” Smith-Marsette said, “I tell myself, 'This might be the one that goes to the house.'”

That long kick-return touchdown is the one thing that has eluded him in his career. He came close last year at Nebraska (with a career-long 74-yarder) and at Indiana (when he tried to hurdle the kicker).

“Never frustrated, never mad,” the always-smiling Hawkeye said. “It’s just an opportunity for the offense to have good field position.”

Brandon Smith has been his usual self in practice this week.

“Making crazy catches,” fellow receiver Smith-Marsette said.

Smith was held out of the Northwestern game after taking helmet-to-helmet contact at Purdue. Coach Kirk Ferentz said as long as the 6-foot-3, 219-pounder gets through this week healthy, he’ll play at Illinois.

That’s good news on many levels. He’s a big-body threat against Illinois’ typical “Cover One” defense. He’s one of Iowa’s best run-blocking receivers.  And sophomore Max Cooper has been declared out for the season with an injury he suffered late against Northwestern.

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Iowa running back Mekhi Sargent arrived as a largely unknown junior-college running back in June. He's become a key contributor. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

Running back Mekhi Sargent just seems happy to be here.

The Key West, Florida, native took a chance on going to Iowa Western Community College in Council Bluffs — sight unseen — a few years ago. On Tuesday, he even called it "scary."

“I was comfortable with my decision,” Sargent said. “But when I got there, it was culture shock.”

It’s worked out. Iowa noticed him there, and he arrived here in June. Sargent had his best game three weeks ago at Penn State and was thrust into his first start against Northwestern. The sophomore leads Iowa’s three primary running backs in yards from scrimmage (454 rushing, 142 receiving).

“I’m proud of my progress,”’ he said. “But there’s a lot more that I want to do in my remaining time here.”

There might be wiggle room to Ferentz’s no-visit recruiting policy.

Hawkeye Class of 2019 commit Jestin Jacobs, a well-regarded linebacker, recently got an offer from Ohio State and planned to visit his home-state school. In the past, it would have been a total deal-breaker for the Iowa coaching staff. Now … it doesn’t seem the door is entirely shut on Jacobs.

“Everything is case by case, but as a rule, commitment means commitment, and we try to encourage when players do commit to us, we try to encourage them to embrace that concept,” Ferentz said. “… If we see something that might be a little contradictory to a commitment, then we'll have to consider it and talk about it, et cetera, and visit with the prospect about it.”

Stay tuned.

Barring injury, Amani Jones won’t return to a middle-linebacker role this season.

The season’s starter at that position was benched in the first quarter of the opener after missing some reads. He got back in there at Minnesota after a Jack Hockaday injury, then was ejected for targeting.

Now, with Hockaday and Kristian Welch healthy, Jones has fallen off the depth chart.

“We've really encouraged him to just embody the special teams role that he has,” Ferentz said, “and he's done a great job with that. His attitude has been great.”

Ferentz seemed more open to trying out Ryan Gersonde at punter.

Colten Rastetter has struggled in recent weeks, and Gersonde could still redshirt under a new NCAA rule, even if he took every Hawkeye punt in the final two games plus a bowl. The sophomore hasn’t played this season after punting in five games as a freshman before getting hurt.

“We can play him without being penalized now, which is really nice,” Ferentz said, “and there are probably a couple other guys, too, that we're looking at that might be able to help us in some way, maybe small roles, that type of thing.”

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.

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