Leistikow: Only one way left for Hawkeyes to prove they're a really good football team

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Kirk Ferentz is a believer in his football team and its offensive game plans of the past two weeks. The Iowa coach made that clear following Saturday night’s 17-12 home loss to ninth-ranked Penn State.

Of an offense, coordinated by his oldest son, that has generated more passing attempts (85) than rushing yards (71) and scored only 15 points in back-to-back losses against Michigan and Penn State, Ferentz wasn’t second-guessing the play calls.

“You do what you think is going to give you the best chance to move the ball and ultimately score points,” Ferentz said. “I'm not too upset about that. We’ve just got to do a little bit better.”

And after watching his Hawkeyes let back-to-back major opportunities to take a big program step slip away, Ferentz wasn’t wavering about his belief in this team.

“I've got confidence in our football team. I think we have a good football team,” Ferentz said. “We didn't play good enough this week or last week against two really good football teams.”

Maybe Ferentz is right. Maybe the Hawkeyes have a good football team with the potential to be really good.

But to use a quote that Ferentz often references from former NFL coach Bill Parcells:

“You are what your record says you are.”

Nate Stanley has completed 48 of 85 passes over the past two games for 546 yards but those numbers have largely been meaningless. Iowa has gone 0-2 despite holding Michigan and Penn State to a combined 27 points.

And, after falling short on back-to-back weeks, there’s only one way left for the Hawkeyes to prove themselves as a really good football team:

Win out.

That’s right. Going 6-for-6 the rest of the regular season, starting with homecoming against Purdue at 11 a.m. Saturday, is the only way for this Hawkeyes’ season to be a special one.

Unless Iowa goes 6-0 the rest of the way, it will have been at best a good season — not a great one.

“We always preach if you want to be a Big Ten championship team, you’ve got to win the close games, the big games,” junior safety Geno Stone said. “It kind of is a reality check of who we want to be. I definitely feel like we can still be that team. We just need to go to work and really focus on the details now.”

The mark of success this year was always going to be at least winning the Big Ten West. That goal now is precarious, with the Hawkeyes 1-2 in Big Ten play and West Division leaders Wisconsin and Minnesota (both 6-0 overall, 3-0 in the conference) rolling.

The goal is not dead. Mathematically speaking, of course.

Before even considering that, though, the Hawkeyes clearly have a lot of things to shore up.

The offensive line is a problem. The truth of why Ferentz is OK with the heavy volume of Nate Stanley passing attempts has to do with what’s been two weeks of woeful play by his offensive guards. Stanley was walloped time and time again, even though he was sacked only two times by Penn State. Tyler Goodson's fumble in the third quarter occurred as a result of instant pressure up the middle. The lack of a viable solution is indicting for a program that boasts a reputation for stout offensive line play.

Stanley has not been great the last two weeks by any measure. He checked into too many dead running plays Saturday, and he missed too many critical throws that a senior should make. His lack of mobility isn't helping, given the constant pass rush he’s facing, but he's still the best available quarterback for the job.

“We need to make a couple more plays,” Stanley said. “… We stopped ourselves from scoring.”

The defense, while very good in terms of points allowed, needs to create more turnovers and big plays, not to mention stop covering speedy slot receivers with linebackers.

“We’re doing the right things,” defensive end A.J. Epenesa said. “We just have to do them better.”

So, about the West.

Correcting every deficiency might not be realistic, but it's the only hope. Because one more loss, and Iowa's division-title hopes might as well be done.

I wrote before the season that in the five years of the Big Ten’s geographical division splits, the West winner has gone 29-1 in divisional play. Crossover losses have never mattered. Winning the West means being perfect in your division.

That still holds true for Iowa (4-2 overall) as long as it gets two morsels of help: For Wisconsin to lose at Ohio State on Oct. 26; and for Minnesota to lose to either Penn State (Nov. 9) or Wisconsin (Nov. 30).

If those things happen and Iowa wins out, it’ll finish 7-2 in the Big Ten and win the West on tiebreakers.

It’s hard to believe that could happen, considering Iowa’s offense hadn’t scored a touchdown in 23 straight possessions until Brandon Smith’s 33-yard grab with 2:31 to go.

But, as Ferentz said, he believes this is a good football team.

I know a lot of fans want blood. “Fire Brian Ferentz” was the most popular three-word headline that we gathered on Twitter for our postgame podcasts

"I think that comes with the territory," Kirk Ferentz said of the outside angst. "The answer is to score more points."

So, go do it.

Prove you're a good team.

Take care of business these next two weeks against Purdue and Northwestern. And then take your 6-2 record into Madison, Wisconsin, and regain control of the West by atoning for these missed opportunities of the past two weeks.

Then win out.

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.