Leistikow: Hawkeyes can find encouragement in past responses to 0-2 Big Ten starts

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

If Iowa loses Saturday’s home football game against Michigan State, it’ll become just the third team in the 22-year Kirk Ferentz era to start the Big Ten Conference season with back-to-back-to-back losses.

Under Ferentz, only the 1999 and 2007 Hawkeyes (neither of which made a bowl game) held an 0-3 Big Ten record.

Obviously, that’s unwelcome company that the 2020 Hawkeyes don’t want to join.

But there are a few encouraging data points that indicate they won’t.

First, the Hawkeyes are favored by a touchdown against the 1-1 Spartans, who are coming off a win at rival Michigan. That’s a sign oddsmakers like Iowa’s situation — a good program with its back against the wall versus a mid-level Big Ten opponent coming off an emotional win.

Iowa got a lift from its defense (including from Zach VanValkenburg, middle, after a fumble recovery) against Northwestern early. The Hawkeyes are hoping to also celebrate late against Michigan State.

Second, Ferentz has responded well to his two most recent 0-2 Big Ten starts — in 2008 and 2017.

To find a path to a victory against the Spartans, let’s revisit the last two times Ferentz’s teams went from 0-2 one Saturday to 1-2 the next.

In 2008, Iowa was a six-point favorite at Indiana and rolled, 45-9.

In 2017, Iowa was a 16-point home favorite against Illinois and won, 45-16.

In addition to generating the same robust points total, there were three consistent themes in both wins.

1. Iowa enjoyed large rushing numbers.

The Hawkeyes rushed 51 times for 227 yards at Indiana in 2008, with Shonn Greene and Jewel Hampton popping for 100-plus yards apiece.

Iowa ran 38 times for 191 yards against Illinois in 2017, with Akrum Wadley’s 115 yards leading the way.

It would be a great start Saturday if Iowa could log its first 100-yard rusher of the young season. Tyler Goodson needs more than the 14½ carries a game he’s gotten through two games; same with Mekhi Sargent’s mere 7½ carries a game.

"Personally, I think I could take as many carries that they give me," Goodson said Wednesday. "Just like if the coach asks me to play a different position, I’ll do that. If they want me to carry the ball 25 or 30 times, I’ll do it."

2. Iowa cranked up the heat after halftime.

Iowa outscored Indiana, 28-0, in the second half to break open a 17-9 ballgame in 2008.

Iowa thumped Illinois, 28-3, after halftime in 2017.

The second-half scoring woes are not lost on the Hawkeye offense, which hasn’t registered a third-quarter point in its last six Big Ten games. Iowa has been outscored, 17-3, in the second half of tight losses to Purdue and Northwestern.

“It's not like we're not trying to score points in the second half," center Tyler Linderbaum said. "It just hasn't been going our way. The big focus is execution and just trying to push the ball through in the second half. And just finish games."

3. Iowa was operating with a sophomore quarterback.

It’s a good reminder that Ricky Stanzi (2008) and Nate Stanley (2017) both began their Iowa careers with back-to-back Big Ten losses. Stanzi’s were by a combined eight points; Stanley’s were by a combined nine. Stanzi wound up 26-9 as a Hawkeye starter; Stanley went 27-12. Both led Iowa to 3-0 bowl records.

Spencer Petras is 0-2 with losses by a combined five points. Ferentz reiterated on Tuesday that Petras has been “quality” behind the scenes and that he thought Petras is “going to keep getting better as we go. And we are looking forward to seeing him play this Saturday.”

Linderbaum, who lives with Petras, added: "Spencer’s been great, he’s been positive, been a leader. We’d expect nothing less from him."

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Ferentz likes talking about his 2008 team, which he said on Tuesday became one of his favorites because of how it responded to early-season adversity. That team wound up 9-4, winning six of its last seven games. It set the stage for Iowa's magical Orange Bowl season in 2009.

“That year (2008) ended up being one of the most enjoyable years I have ever had in coaching,” Ferentz said. “… I just have nothing but fond memories about that team.

“It was all about our leadership, and it came from a lot of different places, a lot of different levels.”

Counting a 21-20 loss at Pittsburgh, Iowa had lost three games in a row entering that Indiana game in 2008. Those Hawkeyes laid down the hammer and barely looked back. They later enjoyed some monumental and joyous moments, like slaying 9-0 Penn State on a last-second field goal and pummeling Minnesota in the Metrodome, 55-0, to punctuate the regular season.

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It’s clear Ferentz is hopeful a similar vibe can emerge from this 2020 team, albeit in a pandemic-shortened campaign. Ferentz made sure to note on Tuesday there is up to 80% of the season remaining; Iowa still has six regular-season games left plus the Big Ten's "champions week" matchups. Plus, every team is bowl-eligible in 2020.

As history has shown, Saturday’s outcome against Michigan State could be critical as Iowa charts its next course.

“It's hard,” Ferentz said. “It tests you in a lot of ways and (there are) opinions on the outside, all that stuff. It's all about what we do internally.

“That (2008) team bought into that philosophy, and they just kept pushing. And we came out of it.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.