No easy answers for Iowa's tough football season

Mark Emmert

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Saquon Barkley had just ripped through the Iowa defense for 211 yards and two touchdowns Saturday, and he had one final wound to inflict.

“You can see in their demeanor when they don’t wanna be on the field no more. And you got ‘em,” the Penn State tailback told reporters after a 41-14 throttling witnessed by 106,194 fans at Beaver Stadium. “You gotta take advantage of that and finish them.”

Barkley had stared in the Hawkeyes’ eyes and seen something missing in the second half. Minutes later, a group of reporters looked into those same unblinking eyes, listened to their monotone explanations, and came away with the same impression.

Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard briefly lost his grip on the football after being sacked at Penn State this season.

Iowa is a team lacking conviction right now. It is evident in the Hawkeyes’ robotic play. It shines through with each question they answer afterward. The light has gone out, and the coaches and players are at a loss to pinpoint a reason or offer hope that it will return.

“The cavalry is not coming. We're going to play with the guys that we have and try to find answers,” Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said after his team fell to 5-4 on the heels of a near-historic defensive collapse. “We certainly didn't have enough tonight.”

Penn State rolled up 599 yards of offense, its most in 21 seasons. It was the most Iowa had allowed in 17 years. The Nittany Lions (7-2, 5-1 Big Ten Conference) never had a three-and-out possession.

They barely had to sweat against a once-proud Iowa defense that had been playing well recently. And this was after a Hawkeye bye week.

More Coverage of Saturday night's loss:

“There is no overnight fix here,” Ferentz offered, a hollowness in his words and in his voice.

Iowa had two weeks of “overnights” leading into this game, so that certainly doesn’t bode well for what lies ahead. No. 2 Michigan, a team that is steamrolling through the Big Ten and beat Penn State 49-10 earlier this season, comes to Kinnick Stadium on Saturday for a prime-time game that will be broadcast nationally on ABC.

That means a Hawkeye offense that hasn’t measured up against decent opposition this season will get its severest test on the biggest stage. Anyone care to offer a prediction?

“I love football. It’s a fun game,” Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard gamely insisted late Saturday in a dim concourse beneath Beaver Stadium.

“Obviously, it’s frustrating when you’re losing. There’s nothing like the feeling of winning games. We’ve got three guaranteed left. So I hope we can win those and have a different feeling in the locker room after.”

Middle linebacker Josey Jewell spoke again of the “little details” that must be corrected. Cornerback Desmond King said a dozen times that the Hawkeyes must study the film and learn from their mistakes.

It’s the kind of thing players say when they really don’t know what has gone wrong. Or maybe they do know and just don’t want to admit it. Either way, the pained expressions reveal how much the Hawkeyes are hurting.

A significant portion of the fan base is calling for coaches to be fired (offensive coordinator Greg Davis the frequent target), a new playbook to be installed, and starting players to be benched. There’s some merit in all of that clamor, although no single change three-quarters of the way through a season is going to be a cure-all.

The reality is that Ferentz is correct in his observation that what is wrong with the Hawkeyes lies well beyond the surface. There’s something missing in this year’s team that was present last year during a 12-0 regular season. There’s a lack of leadership, from the coaches and the players. An absence of passion, joy or belief.

Or heart.

The first time Iowa played under the lights this season, the team scored 42 points and gleefully romped past in-state rival Iowa State. By the time the Hawkeyes ventured together into the dark again, they allowed 41 points and glumly accepted their fate.

What happened in between those games is difficult to fathom — or to pinpoint.

“Everyone’s got their role to play, and if one thing falls apart, the whole thing falls apart,” Hawkeye linebacker Bo Bower said.

“We came as a team; we (lost) as a team; we’re going to leave as a team — that’s how it’s going to be,” King said with a refreshing air of defiance.

“We don’t want to let this game ruin the last three weeks of our season.”

But — circling back to Barkley’s quote — it’s worth asking if the Hawkeyes “wanna be on the field no more.”

Or if, like many of their fans, they have simply seen enough?