Leistikow: Iowa football's four-game revenge tour has a high-stakes opener against Penn State

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The way that Iowa’s 10-3 loss at Michigan unfolded Saturday was reminiscent of last year’s trip to Penn State. Repeated, uncharacteristic offensive mistakes hijacked the Hawkeyes’ chances to record a signature road win against a very beatable opponent.

But the Hawkeyes must make sure their response to the Michigan loss doesn’t replicate what happened after Penn State 2018. They followed up that 30-24 defeat in Happy Valley with shake-your-head losses to Purdue and Northwestern. And although Iowa rallied to finish with nine wins and a No. 25 final national ranking, it wasn’t the special season that fans and players had envisioned.

As the saying goes, you can’t let one loss turn into two … or three.

Iowa safety Geno Stone, who recorded his first interception of the season Saturday at Michigan, still thinks this will be a "special" Hawkeye team.

“Recent years, bouncing back from a loss has been hard,” Iowa junior safety Geno Stone said Tuesday in advance of Saturday’s 6:30 p.m. home game against ninth-ranked Penn State. “But we’ve turned the page fast.

“Nobody came in with their heads down (Sunday), anything like that. We know we left one out there. But at the same time, we know what we have later in the season. Possibly run the table.”

Running the table is on the table, sure.

But is it realistic?

"I feel like this team’s special. We can do a lot of things,” Stone said. “We can be a great team. It depends on all of us, depending on each other.”

Although Stone was hardly speaking out of turn from the usual, one-game-at-a-time mantra, he was speaking the truth.

The 18th-ranked Hawkeyes (4-1 overall, 1-1 Big Ten Conference) have a major opportunity in front of them. And major motivation.

Let's call this the Hawkeyes' "revenge tour." Their next four games are against the four opponents that narrowly defeated them a year ago in that 9-4 season.

Penn State on Saturday. (A goal-line interception thrown by Nate Stanley in the final minutes foiled a comeback win.)

Home against Purdue on Oct. 19. (The Boilermakers used questionable penalty calls in the final minutes to set up a winning field goal with 8 seconds to go.)

At Northwestern on Oct. 26. (A maddening 14-10 home loss in which Iowa fumbled twice in the fourth quarter and watched the Wildcats celebrate a Big Ten West title on the Kinnick Stadium turf.)

And finally, at Wisconsin on Nov. 9. (The Badgers crushed Iowa hearts with a go-ahead touchdown in the final minute at Kinnick in 2018.)

Four shots at sweet revenge, starting Saturday.

It would’ve been pointless to ask Iowa players about Northwestern or Wisconsin during Penn State week. But players know if they don’t lose again in the regular season, they’re guaranteed to be representing the West Division in Indianapolis on Dec. 7 with the Big Ten title at stake.

“The only goal that we don’t have team-wise on the table is an undefeated season,” Stanley said. “All of our goals are still on the table, whether it be winning the Big Ten or … a New Year’s Six bowl game.

"We know that the best way to do that is to get back on the horse this week and play a great game this weekend.”

The Hawkeyes’ most experienced player (31 career starts) said it perfectly.

And, unlike their follow-ups to past big-stage failures (Iowa stumbled against Purdue in 2017 after a decisive road loss at Wisconsin), the Hawkeyes get a built-in motivator from the schedule.

A Kinnick night game against a top-10 team.

"Big-time," junior receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette said. "When you go out there and Kinnick is dialed into everything you do — big plays, little plays — they give you that energy that gives you that extra boost to go out and make a play."

Stanley, Smith-Marsette and Stone were part of the past two defeats to Penn State — including a 21-19 heart-stopper in 2017 on the game’s final play.

"We had the game in our hands both years," Smith-Marsette. “It’s just minor details.”

Iowa players on Tuesday, of course, confirmed they had successfully flushed the subpar performance at Michigan. What else would they say, though? That they are so scarred by a seven-point loss to the Wolverines that they don't stand a chance against Penn State?

Senior co-captain Brady Ross delivered an answer Tuesday that should offer encouragement that the Hawkeyes have the proper mindset.

“If you have good leadership and good coaches like I think we do, it is that simple,” the hard-nosed fullback said. “The past is the past. Nobody has a time machine.”

It would be nice to hop into a DeLorean and drive 88 mph to the night of Oct. 26, when we will know where Iowa stands heading into an idle week that Big Ten West showdown against Wisconsin — the final stop on this revenge tour.

“If you look at any of our really successful seasons, outside of 2015 or 2009, we experienced some turbulence, either in September or October," Ferentz said. "But we had the right answer moving forward.

“Don't panic after one game. Don't have a party, either. It's all about running the race well. We have 12 laps to run. And we'll assess everything at the end."

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.