Brown: Not knowing what to expect from Iowa a distressing rarity

Rick Brown

IOWA CITY, Ia. -- Monday was a day of dramatic weather change in Iowa. A fast-arriving cold front late in the day sucked the air out of a pleasant fall.

It also gave legs to an age-old saying. You know, the one that says if you don't like the weather around here, wait a day.

Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz made reference to Mother Nature's ways Tuesday, but it had nothing to do with arctic blasts or dropping temperatures. It had everything to do with his wildly fluctuating team.

The subject was last week's 51-14 loss at Minnesota, a Big Ten game between a team that played well and another that played as poorly as a Ferentz-coached team has ever played.

"Combine those two, it's kind of like the weather from (Monday) to (Tuesday)," Ferentz said. "It's not a good thing."

Iowa, 6-3 overall and 3-2 in the Big Ten, travels to Illinois on Saturday. What should we expect? I've predicted the wrong winner in three of the past four games. Your guess is probably better than mine.

For most of his 16 seasons as Iowa's coach, you've had a pretty good idea what to expect out of Ferentz's teams. Not flashy, conservative in nature, but sound and consistent for the most part.

Ferentz said his team practiced well the week of the Minnesota game, and he saw no warning signs of disaster on the horizon. He's been surprised before, he said, and he took exception to the suggestion that this has been the hardest of his 16 Iowa teams to read.

"I don't think that's a fair assessment," he said.

But we've never seen a wild ride like we've witnessed this season. Not a 41-point victory over Northwestern, followed by a 37-point loss at Minnesota a week later. Not scoring 28 points in the first quarter against Indiana, and allowing 28 in the second quarter at Minnesota. Not outscoring teams by 56 points in the first quarter, and getting outscored by 38 in the second quarter.

These wide-ranging extremes have also occurred within a game. Up at Maryland 14-0, only to have the Terrapins go on a 38-7 run. Up at half against Iowa State 14-3, only to lose, 20-17.

A field goal's worth of points in the first 57 minutes against Ball State, two touchdowns in the final three. And there was that Pittsburgh game, turning a 17-7 halftime deficit into a 24-20 victory. And those 51 unanswered points by Minnesota in a 44-minute, 10-second span.

"Often times, success doesn't led to more success," said Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock, who followed up one of his best games against Northwestern with, well, not one of his best against Minnesota.

Rudock played at prep power St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where winning was commonplace. This season has been a roller coaster he's never ridden before.

"It's new for a lot of guys on our team, having to experience winning by more than 15 points and losing by more than 15 points," Rudock said. "That's tough for any guy to swallow. You just have to absorb it and get rid of it as quick as you can."

The defense gathered for a players-only meeting Monday, to watch film together and find ways to improve. Last week's sobering slap in the face was apparently an eye-opener.

"I think everyone has flushed Minnesota," defensive end Drew Ott said. "We're not going to forget it. It's always going to be back there. We don't want it to happen again."

How can a team go 76 yards in 12 plays for a touchdown on the opening drive against Minnesota, then not gain a total of 76 yards on its next 11 possessions?

"How do you explain two weeks ago to last week? It's the same question," Ferentz said. "This isn't a video game. It's not a deal where you just pluck plays in or pluck things in."

The bigger question, one that Ferentz posed after the game, takes us back to another age-old football axiom: Those who survive are mentally tough.

Is this team mentally tough? We'll find out, Ferentz said. Rudock said the same thing Tuesday.

"As a player we like to think we're mentally tough," Rudock said. "But that's all talk until you actually go out and show it."

Illinois would be a good place to start. But nine games into the season, the only sure thing is that I'm not sure what to expect.

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