'We should be able to win these games': Iowa enters bye week with frustration — and reason for hope

Matthew Bain
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Talk about deja vu. Down to the painful details, Iowa’s loss to Wisconsin was eerily similar to its last-second loss to Penn State last year.

Both were night games with beyond-raucous crowds.

Both were game No. 4, the first of Big Ten play.

Both saw Iowa take a late lead that seemed like enough for the upset … only for Penn State/Wisconsin to orchestrate a backbreaking, game-winning drive.

Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz walks into a huddle during an NCAA football game on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

"Just like Penn State, this is a tough pill to swallow," Jake Gervase said. "It’s a tough loss. Close game."

It was deja vu around Gervase in the locker room, too. Like after Penn State, there were blank stares, some eyes wet around with edges — guys trying to find answers 20 minutes after watching a huge win get snatched away.

So now, the Hawkeyes stand exactly where they were a year ago: three impressive wins and one painful Big Ten loss with the rest of the conference gauntlet to go. Last season, Iowa followed the loss with a poor performance against Michigan State and finished 4-5 in the Big Ten.

This year...?

"We should be able to win these games, no doubt about it," Ihmir Smith-Marsette said, finding more words than most of his teammates. "We’re close, but it’s just minor details we’ve just got to go in and fix so we come out and win these types of games. I mean, us getting close is definitely a step forward.

"But we know we can hang with these teams, and we know that we’re not far behind. We’re not behind at all, to be honest. I believe we’re better."

How Iowa responds during its bye week — and during its ensuing game at Minnesota — can have a significant impact on the rest of 2018. Anthony Nelson said they’ll exercise Kirk Ferentz’s "24-hour rule" and rinse these emotions down the drain after watching film Sunday.

"It’s not easy," Nelson added. "This is the hard part. But we’ve just got to learn from it."

Nelson’s teammates were saying all the right things, too...

Noah Fant: "You’ve just got to get back to work."

Amani Hooker: "Build from it. We did do a lot of good things in this game. We know we’re a good team."

Nate Stanley: "I think the big thing is to find the positive of it, learn from the mistakes that we made and apply it to our game."

Keegan Render: "Knowing that we can play with the best, I think, is the biggest thing for us up front."

A.J. Epenesa: "Things like that are heartbreakers, and they’re tough to deal with. We’ve got this bye week coming up, and we can bounce back."

Of course, bouncing back is easier said than done. The timing of the bye week could work very much in the Hawkeyes’ favor this year, though.

Anyone watching last year’s loss at Michigan State would tell you Iowa looked flat and maybe even distracted for parts of the game — like it hadn’t fully gotten over watching a win over the country's No. 4 team slip away on the last play.

When it comes to the timing of bye weeks, there are usually two schools of thought:

One thinks that, after a loss, you don’t want time off — you just want to get right back under the lights. The other thinks a week off can be good — it gives a team time to lick wounds and regroup mentally before letting one loss turn into two.

"I think, if we were going to have a bye week after any situation, I think this would probably be the best one for me, personally," Epenesa said. "It gives me time to focus back on myself a little bit and to get myself ready for the next game. Then we’ll get back to work together as a team, as a unit, and we’ll all bounce back."

Added Fant: "I think it’s good for our team. A good week to kind of gather our thoughts, gather what we think we need to do and improve on things we need to improve on."

While his players answered questions in the locker room next door, Ferentz told reporters his team is moving in the right direction and that he’s excited for the potential "to get a lot better."

Leistikow:Hawkeyes had Wisconsin beat ... but couldn't deliver knockout blow

Wisconsin didn’t assert itself as a significantly better team than Iowa. But, on Saturday, it was clearly the more clutch team — the more mistake-free team. Ferentz thinks his guys can reach that point, too.

"That's where we got to be focused and realize we still got an eight-game schedule to play," he said. "So we would love to get over this, we'll do that in the next 24 hours and then Monday we get back to being, trying to get back to being a better football player or team."

Matthew Bain covers college football and basketball recruiting for the Des Moines Register. He also helps out with Iowa and Iowa State football and basketball coverage for HawkCentral and Cyclone Insider. Contact him at mbain@dmreg.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewBain_.