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Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa details the difficulty of repeated losing and what his team needs to do to stop skid Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — Once again, the Iowa football team dug its own grave Saturday.

Only this time, the Hawkeyes had to watch Northwestern dance all over it.

“That’s no good. That’s going to hurt for the rest of the night,” Iowa cornerback Michael Ojemudia said after his team lost a third consecutive close game, this one 14-10 to the Wildcats before a frigid crowd announced at 66,493 in Kinnick Stadium.

Northwestern (6-4, 6-1 Big Ten Conference) clinched its first West Division title, gleefully racing to the locker room afterward to continue a loud celebration while Ojemudia and his teammates could only wince at the scene.

“We’ve been close every single year, and kind of looking for a team to lose and leave the door open for us,” said Northwestern wide receiver Bennett Skowronek, who made a brilliant one-handed diving catch for a 32-yard touchdown with 9:27 left that ended up being the game-winner. “To come here, win and clinch it with a couple games left was really special.”

The door was open for Iowa (6-4, 3-4) this year as well. The Hawkeyes kept pushing it closed.

► Analysis:Iowa run defense can't stop Northwestern freshman, and pays the price

Each league loss has come with a different frustrating sequence of mistakes. Against Wisconsin, a pair of flubs in the punt-return game will be long remembered. At Penn State, it was a late interception on the goal line that sealed the Hawkeyes’ fate. At Purdue last week, the Hawkeye pass defense was suddenly vulnerable.

On Saturday, Iowa couldn’t move the ball on the ground, gaining a mere 64 rushing yards on 22 carries. The Hawkeyes had difficulty making deep pass connections, aside from a pair to Ihmir Smith-Marsette, who scored the lone touchdown. The Hawkeyes converted only 3 of 14 third- and fourth-down chances, leading to seven punts that averaged only 34.9 yards. Even kicker Miguel Recinos missed his first field goal in 12 chances, a 38-yarder pushed right by the wind and clanging off the upright.

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Compounding all of that, the Hawkeyes saw running backs Mekhi Sargent and Ivory Kelly-Martin fumble away their final two possessions of the game. That position group had gone 490 carries without losing a fumble.

Whatever could go wrong for Iowa in close games seemingly has. That’s why the players seemed dazed in postgame interviews, at a loss to explain how a season of such promise has quickly nosedived.

“We just didn’t get it done. I think everyone’s pretty frustrated,” said Iowa wide receiver Nick Easley, who had eight catches for 53 yards Saturday.

“In this league, there’s a lot of close games and a lot of games are going to come down to the end. And if you can’t make those plays that count in those tight games, you’re not going to win.”

► Leistikow: Hawkeyes fall to much more deserving Big Ten West champions

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz felt his offense never got into a rhythm against Northwestern. The Hawkeyes outgained the Wildcats 333-306, but also ran 13 fewer plays.

“They made it tough on us in every segment,” Ferentz said. “Offensively, we didn’t hit many big plays. That’s one of the games where I think our inefficiency on third down and their ability to run the ball (184 yards) was probably the biggest thing.”

It’s always been something for Iowa this season. Usually, a different something each Saturday.

Smith-Marsette made a telling comment to reporters when asked about Iowa's inability to move into the red zone Saturday (the Hawkeyes did so just once, ending with the missed field goal).

More:What we learned from Hawkeyes' 14-10 loss to Northwestern

“They had some good play calls against our play calls. They went out there and executed,” Smith-Marsette said. “They’re a good team, well-coached, and they go out there and they know who they are. And they’re just going to attack every play.”

That’s what opponents often say about Iowa. Not this year. This was Northwestern’s autumn. This was Northwestern’s Saturday to celebrate after beating the Hawkeyes for a third consecutive season.

“It’s definitely something that you never want to have to go through,” Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley said of watching the visiting team waltz out of Kinnick Stadium with a ticket to Indianapolis in its back pocket. “But things happen in sports and you have to find a way to be mentally tough and handle it and bounce back.

“I have no doubt that we’re going to come back with a work mindset.”

It’s what the Hawkeyes have been saying for three weeks. Up next is a trip to Illinois. That’s as far east as this team will travel the rest of this Big Ten season.

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