Leistikow: Pessimistic about Hawkeyes' chances in Madison? Here are reasons for optimism

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — It’s not everybody. But I’d describe the overwhelming sentiment currently emanating from the Iowa football fan base as semi-defeated.

Or, maybe put another way: Braced for the pain.

And I get it.

It’s Wisconsin week. In Madison. The Hawkeyes just got done playing one program that usually has their number in Purdue. Now comes another in the Badgers, who happen to be playing their best football of 2021.

You had your hopes sky-high a few weeks ago. The Big Ten West crown had become the minimum expected achievement for the Hawkeyes after the elation of a 23-20 win against Penn State and the subsequent No. 2 national ranking. An unexpected, crummy 24-7 loss to the Boilermakers crashed much of that confidence.

The results during Iowa’s off week only made things worse. Wisconsin absolutely smothered Purdue in West Lafayette. Didn’t allow David Bell to do anything. The run game was unstoppable. The defense forced five turnovers in a 30-13 win.

“If they played like that every week, they might be 7-0,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of the 4-3 Badgers. “They played … pretty much flawlessly.”

Iowa’s three head-to-head wins against the East Division lost some shine as Penn State fell at home to Illinois; Maryland’s tailspin continued with an 18-point loss at improving Minnesota; and preseason top-20 Indiana made a good case that it has the league’s worst team with a 54-7 loss to Ohio State that wasn’t that close.

It didn’t help Hawkeye spirits that Ferentz on Tuesday ruled out cornerback Riley Moss, who had a front-row seat for first-team all-America status until a Week 6 left knee injury, for Saturday’s 11 a.m. game in Madison.

And, lastly, it is deflating to be reminded that Iowa’s offense is ranked 119th out of 130 FBS teams and now faces the best defense it’ll see all season, one that Ferentz loosely compared to Bill Parcells’ Super Bowl champions of 35 years ago.

“I'm not saying they're the New York Giants defense in '86, but there are some parallels,” Ferentz said. “If you look at the size of the guys on those two units, they’re just big people. They’re super veteran on the back end. All those guys are like three-year starters. So, it’s kind of hard to find the weakness.”

Again, totally get the pessimism about Saturday.

But … just for a few moments, let’s zoom out to see the big picture for your Iowa Hawkeyes.

Jack Campbell (31) and the Iowa defense have come up big in two statement games this season, against Iowa State and Penn State.

They still have a 6-1 record and for the sixth time in 2021 are in the top 10 of national polls (No. 9 by the Associated Press, No. 10 by the coaches). Iowa’s highest AP ranking in the pretty-successful 2016 through 2020 seasons was 13th. These are still rare times.

Before the 17-point loss to Purdue, Iowa had gone 33-9 in its previous 42 games with margins of defeat by 11, 6, 2, 4, 7, 5, 2, 4 and 1 points. In its only two-score loss in that stretch (2018 vs. Wisconsin), Iowa was leading into the final minute. Bad days happen to everyone; heck, big bad Wisconsin has losses this season by 28 (to Notre Dame) and 21 (to Michigan). At Iowa under Ferentz, bad days are extremely rare.

And your Hawkeyes are still in first place in the Big Ten West at 3-1, tied with Minnesota (which comes to Kinnick Stadium on Nov. 13). Wisconsin and Purdue are 2-2. They control their destiny. Win out, win the West … and see you in Indianapolis on Dec. 4, perhaps with a one-game shot at the College Football Playoff.

By the way, the first CFP rankings are released Tuesday. If Iowa wins at Wisconsin as a 3½-point underdog, there’s a good chance you’ll see the Hawkeyes in the top six or eight teams. Pretty big deal.

What an opportunity Saturday in Camp Randall Stadium.

“The goals are still there,” Iowa tight end Sam LaPorta said. “They’re very attainable for us.”

Players were reminded during the off week that they’ve done some great things already this season. The hard work they’ve put in since January earned them six wins that can't be taken away.

One of those wins looks especially relevant today: At Iowa State, on Sept. 11. The hostile environment that Iowa conquered in Ames will be similar to what the Hawkeyes encounter at Camp Randall, except with 20,000 or so additional fans.

“I kind of like going on the road,” Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras said. “You feel like that gladiator walking into a foreign environment where everyone wants to see you fail. That fires me up.”

Petras added that, yes, the Iowa State analogy “absolutely” applies. The Cyclones have a stingy defense, and Iowa won that game by a 27-17 score thanks to a careful-but-calculated offense and strong defense and special teams.

“That week we had a good week of preparation, and that led to success Saturday,” said Petras, who noted that this week has been "really good so far."

By the way, Petras has won five straight road starts — at Minnesota, Penn State, Illinois, Iowa State and Maryland — with an average victory margin of 21.8 points. Sure, the first three on that list were in mostly-empty stadiums in 2020 but the evidence shows that the Hawkeyes have been a very, very good road team over the past two seasons.

By the way, the Hawkeyes still have the best center in college football in Tyler Linderbaum. They have elite special teams behind punter Tory Taylor and return man Charlie Jones, major X-factors in a game with an over/under total of 36½ points. They have a Jack Campbell-led defense that ranks only behind unbeatens Georgia and Michigan in allowing 14.6 points per game.

When they've faced their two biggest statement games this season — at then-No. 9 Iowa State, home against then-No. 4 Penn State — they've come away with the W.

So, yeah, if you're a Hawkeye fan focused largely on one game nearly two weeks ago, it's understandable to feel pessimistic.

But overall, there are still plenty of reasons to feel good about Iowa’s position entering Saturday … and into November.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.