Iowa football turning to past experiences, veteran leadership to turn around two-game skid
The feeling in Iowa's locker room following their 27-7 loss to Wisconsin was that of extreme disappointment. For the fifth time in six years, Wisconsin topped Iowa and re-claimed the Heartland Trophy after a one year stay in Iowa City. This loss is Iowa's second in a row after a 24-7 loss to Purdue on Oct. 16.
While the result was disappointing, this isn't unfamiliar territory for Iowa's team. In fact, head coach Kirk Ferentz reminded his team after the game that just last year they were in the same position: two losses in a row with the most important game of the season at Northwestern looming.
Yes, Iowa's played in two Top 10 matchups this year and, yes, Northwestern's record after Saturday sits at 3-5. However, Iowa must win out to have any chance at the Big Ten West title and a third straight loss could send the Hawkeyes' season spiraling.
The margin for error is the smallest it's been but players embraced the challenge following the loss on Saturday.
"It's something that we've been through," defensive lineman Noah Shannon said. "We started the year 0-2 and went on our six-game win streak. Everyone stayed together and that's our plan now, go back tomorrow and look at this film and continue to grow towards wins."
How can Iowa re-create that wave of momentum from last season? For the players, it starts at the top with team leaders using their voice to galvanize the team and remind them these two, ugly losses don't have to define their season.
From the coaches' perspective, they have to reinforce that message and try more than ever to keep the always-mentioned outside noise out of their facility.
"We can't afford to be reactionary," Kirk Ferentz said. "You just have to play it out good, bad or indifferent. We've been there before, in 2004 we were 2-2 and things weren't looking too good coming out of Arizona State so it's a long race, our players need to understand that and it's just about moving forward day by day, week by week."
On the field, it doesn't appear that any wholesale changes are coming but the Hawkeyes failed to execute on their normally emphasized fundamentals on Saturday. Two of Iowa's fumbles inside their 10-yard line were on routine plays: a handoff between veterans in quarterback Spencer Petras and running back Ivory Kelly-Martin and a muffed punt by senior Max Cooper.
Defensively, missed tackles throughout the day plagued the Hawkeyes and allowed for Wisconsin to consistently move the ball on otherwise short to moderate gains. And for the second straight week, the defense went without forcing a turnover. Iowa is -6 in turnover differential in their last two games.
In order to do the big things well, Iowa must do the little things right.
"We just didn't execute good enough," linebacker Seth Benson said. "We didn't make plays when we needed to make them. We just have to learn from it and come back better next week."
Two veteran players that Iowa missed on Saturday were cornerbacks Riley Moss and Terry Roberts. Both are "week-to-week," according to Ferentz, and he hopes to get them back soon. Elsewhere on the injury front, defensive lineman Deontae Craig is in the same category as Moss and Roberts and Petras said following the game that his shoulder is "fine" after leaving the game in the fourth quarter.
Health aside, whoever is on the field for Iowa next Saturday against Northwestern has to be better than what was shown against Wisconsin, their season depends on it. This isn't uncharted territory for the Hawkeyes though and according to Petras, inside the locker room there is "no panic".
A common mantra in Iowa's program is "the next game is the most important." Considering where the season is right now, that statement couldn't be more true. Despite two consecutive ugly losses, the Hawkeyes are preaching optimism. They dug themselves out of a hole last year and expect to do the same during the final stretch of this year.
"We're just worried about taking things on a game-by-game basis," Koerner said. "We're 6-2 right now and that feels pretty bad with how we started the season but we were 6-2 at the end of last year feeling pretty good. I'd like to think we can respond and finish out the season because there's plenty to play for."
Kennington Lloyd Smith III covers Iowa Hawkeyes football and men's basketball for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.