Iowa cornerback Michael Ojemudia says there's plenty of time to salvage season. Mark Emmert/HawkCentral
EAST LANSING, Mich. — The 2008 Iowa football team started 3-0 and then lost three games by a total of nine points, the last of those at Michigan State.
Nine years later, the Hawkeyes find themselves in a similar funk. Three wins, followed by a pair of losses. The margin of the two defeats, this time, is nine points.
The 2008 Hawkeyes rebounded to finish 9-4. Coach Kirk Ferentz isn’t saying history is about to repeat itself, but he did note some similarities Saturday after Iowa fell 17-10 to the Spartans to lose its first two Big Ten Conference games for the first time since 2008.
“That season just turned out fine,” Ferentz said. “But it was a little bit like that, where we had some young players that had to gain traction. And those three losses were all close losses. We’ve had two close losses back to back.
“I don’t think anybody’s ready to hit the panic button. But we need to hit the improve button. That’s what we need to do right now and just focus on what we can do over the next six days to get better as a team.”
Next up for Iowa (3-2, 0-2 Big Ten) is what should be an easy home game against Illinois (2-2, 0-1). After that is a perfectly placed bye week, followed by a rugged second half of the schedule.
There was palpable anger from the Hawkeye players in postgame interviews Saturday, a sense that two narrow setbacks were eating at them.
“They go down as ‘L’s,” freshman tight end T.J. Hockenson said of the Michigan State defeat and last week’s 21-19 home loss to Penn State. “It doesn’t matter how close they are.”
“If we didn’t win, we didn’t win,” senior wide receiver Matt VandeBerg quickly pointed out. “Whether we lost by two points or we lost by 30, we still lost.”
“That’s the part that really sucks — that we were close in both of the games. So we’ve got to learn from this,” sophomore cornerback Michael Ojemudia said.
“It sucks, but it shows that we can play hard and we’re only getting better.”
So what does Iowa need to do immediately to get better results, besides get softer opponents like Illinois on the schedule?
Communication must improve, said senior safety Miles Taylor, a point Hockenson and Ojemudia echoed.
Practices must be a lot sharper, Hawkeye players pointed out, suggesting that area had slipped in recent weeks.
Ferentz has said the past two weeks that he was pleased with the way his team practiced.
Not so, Hockenson said Saturday.
“We need to come out this week and practice a lot better than we have been,” Hockenson said.
“Sometimes, we’re just not on the same page and it shows. We win during the week and coach Ferentz always tells us that. So we’re going to try to win during the week this week.”
Taylor also pointedly remarked that Iowa’s practice habits need shoring up.
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Ojemudia felt it was the beginning of Saturday’s game — when Michigan State cruised 75 yards for a quick touchdown and a lead it never relinquished — that set the Hawkeyes up for failure. Iowa didn’t allow a second-half point to the Spartans.
“It can’t happen again,” Ojemudia said. “The scores in the first half basically turned the game. We’ve got to come out better than that.
“I feel like we got better, had more intensity and focus throughout the game.”
The two narrow losses have obviously caused the Hawkeyes to turn introspective, to examine what they need to change. That’s a fine first step, but it needs to lead to better results, or the season won’t be salvaged like it was in 2008.
“It’s not over,” Ojemudia said defiantly. “It’s just the start of the season. We have a long season ahead of us.”
Actually, the season’s nearly half over.
Better communication, more focused practice sessions, quicker starts to games. Whatever the Hawkeyes need to do, they’d better do it quick.