No panic as Hawkeyes insist on minuscule margin from 5-0 to 3-2

Chris Cuellar

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Panic and outrage stayed outside Iowa’s Football Operations Center on Tuesday.

Players and head coach Kirk Ferentz expressed disappointment about defeats in two of the past three weeks, including last Saturday’s sloppy 38-31 loss to Northwestern, but calmly insisted the Hawkeyes (3-2, 1-1 Big Ten) weren’t down and out.

Their best case: Remember last season’s perfect regular season and eventual Rose Bowl berth? Well, that was almost 3-2 through five games, too.

“Winning and losing tends to be a really fine line,” Ferentz said. “And when you’re winning, things get magnified a little bit, and some of the things that you’re not really doing well get overlooked.

“Conversely, when you come up on the short end, the things that you don’t do well really tend to be more magnified.”

Iowa’s early struggles this season have been highlighted by North Dakota State and Northwestern, both home losses to double-digit underdogs in seemingly unfamiliar fashion. Even the rugged Sept. 24 conference win at Rutgers felt revealing.

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Time to freak out? Not for experienced Hawkeyes ahead of Saturday’s important Big Ten West clash at Minnesota (3-1, 0-1).

“If you look at it closely, we could have easily been 3-2 last year,” Iowa senior receiver Riley McCarron said.

“The Wisconsin game we won 10-6 and we also needed Marshall’s (Koehn) game-winning field goal against Pitt. We’re a couple plays away from being 5-0 this year, too.”

Like McCarron recalled, the Hawkeyes needed a 57-yard field goal as time expired to top the visiting Panthers in Week 3 of the 2015 campaign. North Dakota State reversed that script with a kick of its own last month.

And the close win over Wisconsin came despite Iowa’s 77 yards passing and a scoreless second half. That fifth win from last season was swapped for a Big Ten loss last week.

“We don’t need any huge changes,” McCarron said. “We just need to come out and focus on what we need to do to pick up a win.”

Fans might disagree with that assessment from the replacement of injured top target Matt VandeBerg, but his teammates also feel the fixes Iowa needs are on the micro level.

“We’ve just got to learn from our mistakes,” Iowa linebacker Ben Niemann said. “I don’t think we’re making continuous mistakes over and over again. It’s just communication, being in our gaps, following assignments. It’s not the same guy messing up over and over.”

Macro changes midseason usually involve personnel or schemes, something Ferentz has historically avoided. The 18th-year head coach is still focused on refinement with the talent on-hand.

“Our issue is just playing more consistently,” Ferentz said. “All 11 guys being where they’re supposed to be on a given play. And then you have to execute the fundamentals ... We’re not clicking on all cylinders, clearly.”

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It may sound repetitive, yet each Hawkeye trotted out to the media on Tuesday remembered a missed opportunity or specific play from the previous Saturday. One good play, then one bad one. Two drives starting with false start penalties. Even botched blocks they want back.

“Some players have off days,” Iowa left guard Boone Myers said when asked about left tackle Cole Croston. “I’m not saying he did. He played really well for most of the game. I made mistakes too. I got beat. James got beat. Everyone got beat. That’s what we need to work on.”

Stacking up Iowa’s smaller problems can make them look more comprehensive. Just see Iowa’s ranking in total offense: 110th out of 128 teams in FBS. Yet Ferentz is still focused on the little things, and his players are following suit. Like a deep incomplete pass to Jerminic Smith one snap before quarterback C.J. Beathard threw a game-sealing interception to Northwestern.

“It was a well-conceived play: The timing was good, execution was good, but we were off a couple inches,” Ferentz said, while extending his arms for an invisible catch past the podium.

“That’s really kind of what we’re talking about.”

The Hawkeyes believe the solutions can come. It would help their cause if they started arriving Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.