Brown: Hawkeyes already in must-win territory

Rick Brown

Iowa head football coach Kirk Ferentz looks on as his Hawkeyes warm up before playing Northern Iowa on Saturday, Aug. 30, 2014, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa.

IOWA CITY, Ia. –I guess bad things really do happen in threes.

Iowa's bye week included the two-game suspension of linebacker Reggie Spearman for OWI, the loss of running back LeShun Daniels for the remainder of the regular season to an ankle injury and the defection of wide receiver Derrick Willies.

"You can't let that distract you," senior running back Mark Weisman said.

That positive approach couldn't come at a better time, because it's crunch time in the West Division of the Big Ten. It starts with Northwestern's visit to Kinnick Stadium on Saturday.

"This is the Big Ten playoffs, right now," Iowa defensive tackle Carl Davis said.

While win-or-go-home may be a slight exaggeration, it's not far off. Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin have one league loss. The Wildcats have two.

"We all control our own destiny," Davis said.

In the case of the Hawkeyes, trying to bounce back from a disappointing loss at Maryland, there is little margin for error. Lose to Northwestern, and this season could get sideways in a hurry with road games (at Minnesota and Illinois) on the horizon. But win on Saturday, and you've got a team with a bounce in its step heading to TCF Bank Stadium in the Twin Cities on Nov. 8.

Add it all up, and Saturday is a huge game for the Hawkeyes. And it's against a team that has become their nemesis. This game feels like more of a rivalry than Minnesota and the battle for Floyd of Rosedale. Maybe that's because Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald is 5-3 against Iowa.

That includes three straight wins at Kinnick Stadium in 2006, 2008 and 2009. Iowa has won the last two games at Kinnick – a 41-31 victory in 2011 that saw the Wildcats pull even after a 17-0 deficit only to fall victim to Iowa's second wind, and a 17-10 overtime victory last season.

In other words, Northwestern is not intimidated by Kinnick Stadium.

"I appreciate your compliment, but I disagree with you," Fitzgerald said Tuesday. "I think we've been very fortunate to win in some of our games out there. This game typically comes down to one or two big plays and the turnover ratio. And obviously who can win the kicking game."

Despite its 5-2 record overall, there's a disappointing feel to this Iowa season so far. Struggling to beat Ball State and losing to Iowa State — teams with a collective 5-10 record — and then a poor showing at Maryland in the last outing haven't been encouraging.

But something tells me there's more to this team than we've seen. And Saturday would be a good time to put it on display. We're about to find out how the Hawkeyes respond to that subpar performance in College Park, Md.

"I just know moving forward if we don't tackle well and don't protect the football, it's going to be hard to win," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "That is the bottom line. We have to play better."

Ferentz, his coaches and players all subscribe to the one-game-at-a-time approach.

But Saturday, the one game is probably a must win if Iowa wants to end up in the Big Ten championship game on Dec. 6 in Indianapolis.

It's a must game for the Wildcats, too. That's pretty obvious, Fitzgerald said Tuesday. His team, already one back of the leading foursome in the loss column, can't afford to double that.

"If these last handful of games between the two of us is any indication, it should be a whale of a game," Fitzgerald said.

Davis said that Phil Parker, Iowa's defensive coordinator, and Chris Doyle, Iowa's strength and conditioning coach, have used the playoff analogy with the team heading into Saturday.

"How do we want to go out? This is a whole new season," Davis said. "The race for Indy. Every team is going to be tough. Because everybody has a point to prove."

Weisman said that former Iowa and NFL all-pro kicker Nate Kaeding has spoken to the team on several occasions about the fact that there is no big picture. It's the now that's important. One day at a time.

That one day is Saturday, against Northwestern. For this Iowa team, nothing else matters.

Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.