IOWA CITY, Ia. — Standing at the podium in late September as the buzz began swirling around Iowa’s first Big Ten challenge, Kirk Ferentz reminded everyone how much football was still ahead.
“Still eight weeks left,” the Hawkeyes coach said, “no matter what happens.
“It's a long season.”
Two months have passed since Ferentz uttered those words. Nothing Iowa football-related looks the same as it did back then. The Hawkeyes (6-4, 3-4 Big Ten Conference), stuck in another November tailspin, are learning just how long this season can get.
No yearly narrative can shift quicker than in college football, which has the fewest regular-season games among any major American sport. There’s no time to work through a losing streak or a midseason skid — only to get things right for the postseason. Each college football week is essentially a playoff battle if you want to remain on course.
Talking to Hawkeye players after Saturday’s 14-10 defeat to Northwestern — the latest stumble in Iowa’s first three-game conference losing streak since 2012 — there was a universal sense of desolation, as expected.
A few lobbed in some “we’ll get back to work and find a way to bounce back” clichés — but only after putting responses filled with frustration and agony on record. They claimed they had a solid week of practice. They claimed to have washed away the Penn State and Purdue pain ahead of Saturday’s showdown. They claimed the focus was all there.
But at day's end, concrete answers on how this season has spiraled so quickly were hard to find.
“We just need a little more,” defensive end Anthony Nelson said, “and I’m not sure where that’s going to come from right now.”
It’s not easy to pinpoint the decisive problem because, well, everything has been an issue at some point during this skid: Passing struggles took center stage in the Penn State loss. Defensive miscues of the backend led to the Purdue defeat. The ground game hasn’t been spectacular all year, but it was particularly dreadful Saturday night.
Compound those with an up-and-down linebacker group, peculiar drama surrounding tight end Noah Fant and inconsistent special teams play. Outside of maybe Iowa’s defensive line and safeties, every position group has gone under the microscope this year.
All that leads to this: Ten games in, there’s little idea what you’re going to get from Iowa each Saturday. Quality teams have an identity long established before Week 12 of the college football season. Unknowns are understandable in preseason camp and early September — not mid-November.
“With this loss, I feel like it’s probably the biggest wakeup (call) of the season with three consecutive losses,” cornerback Michael Ojemudia said. “If we go downhill from here, it’s going to be a really bad season.”
With nearly all this season’s juice evaporated, things can only get worse for Iowa given what’s ahead. The ceiling for this team is now eight wins — nine if you count the bowl game — and Hawkeye fans have been there, done that. A three-game winning streak to end the year would only amplify the missed opportunities along the way.
The 2018 floor, however, can still sink tremendously. Left on Iowa’s slate are four-win Illinois and three-win Nebraska, arguably the conference’s two worst programs this year after Rutgers. The Hawkeyes should be significant favorites in both, meaning despair is the only unexpected emotion Iowa fans can feel on those days.
Unlike the last two years, there’s no undefeated Michigan or top-10 Ohio State on the November schedule. No chance at a late-season stunner to inject life during a lackluster stretch.
Iowa is purely fighting to avoid embarrassment.
“You hear it so much, but I think this year, we’re seeing how fine the line is between winning and losing,” center Keegan Render said. “We’ve obviously been on the short end of the stick a few times, and it’s frustrating.
“… It keeps coming back to little details, but at the same time, that’s what makes Iowa between a 10-win team or an eight-win team. It’s things so small, but at the same time, you can’t overlook it. We just need to go back to the drawing board and realize the importance of everything you do.”
Iowa’s four losses have been by a combined 23 points, a number that’d be even slimmer had it not been for a Wisconsin insurance touchdown in the final seconds. Players noted that theme as well — that Iowa is essentially one possession away from being undefeated.
While mathematically true, four close losses don’t pile up by accident. One maybe, but not four. That’s where the self-evaluation starts.
"Something like that is extremely frustrating to know that we’re just not finishing," defensive end A.J. Epensea said. “We’re not finishing drives. We’re not finishing tackles.”
Added tight end T.J. Hockenson: “We always talk about at the beginning of the year, we want to be in these close games. And we do. That’s the mark of a good team. We just need to figure out to get over the hump and win.”
It’ll be almost a month since Iowa has when it kicks off next week at Illinois. How things can change in a long season.
Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.