Iowa needs a win in a bad way. The Hawkeyes are relying on its team leaders to make it happen.
This Iowa football season has had several statement games that, well, turned out not to be much of a statement after all.
You had the dominance over a ranked Indiana team that quickly proved unworthy of its preseason hype.
Then you had the win over a top-10 opponent in Iowa State but the Cyclones have underwhelmed this season compared to expectations back then.
Lastly, you had that exhilarating win over a top-five Penn State … and then the Nittany Lions followed that with a loss to Illinois of all places.
And of course Iowa has had its own issues of late, dropping two games following a rise to No. 2 in national rankings.
So in the end … could it be a game against 3-5 Northwestern that may be the most important of all?
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On paper, Saturday's game in Evanston, Illinois doesn't compare to the ones listed above, but the circumstances around Iowa's season have changed in recent weeks.
The Hawkeyes have lost two straight, and they were dominated in the process. Now more than ever before, Iowa needs their leaders to keep the team focused.
The Hawkeyes, badly, need a win.
"It's definitely going to take leadership to keep everybody together," Iowa defensive lineman Noah Shannon said after Saturday's loss.
These situations are not new at Iowa under Kirk Ferentz. In 2016, the Hawkeyes defeated No. 3 Michigan after two straight losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. In 2018, Ferentz's team reeled off three straight wins after a three-game losing streak to finish with a 9-4 record. And just last year, Iowa won six straight game to end the season after an 0-2 start.
The hallmark of those teams and what will define this year's team is the ability to respond to adversity. And the catalysts of those turnarounds were the team's leaders.
"First of all, the game is a game of mental toughness. It starts there," Ferentz said. "These are moments where you really find out where you're at on that. Then the other part, the teams that fight through it, you typically have good leadership. They're getting good leadership from within. And then they've got maturity. It takes maturity, as well. Maybe that's tied in with mental toughness."
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Strong voices on this year's team are abundant. They range from team captains Matt Hankins, Jack Koerner, Tyler Linderbaum and Spencer Petras to established veterans like Jack Campbell, Tyler Goodson, Zack VanValkenburg and more. Their challenge this week has been to galvanize the team and also keep this season in perspective.
"Regardless of the division, if we win the rest of our games, we can be an 11-win team," Petras said. "It comes down week-to-week and we're not thinking about that but sometimes you can get into the 'Oh, we lost' and whatever, but we still have quite a bit to play for — beginning with Northwestern."
Petras understands the importance in staying positive both in his words and body language. The offense has struggled most this season, but Petras and Linderbaum have expressed confidence a breakthrough is coming.
"It's really easy when you're frustrated or something bad is happening to curse somebody out or whatever," Petras said. "That doesn't help anything. Our coaches really teach that in leadership it's important to be a positive and concise communicator, especially in times of adversity because everyone is feeding off of that."
If any fingers are pointed, it should be back to each player, according to Campbell.
"Reflect on what you could do to put your teammates in a better position," Campbell said. "The younger guys on the scout team, could you give a better look? On defense, do you know what gap you're going to fill, your assignment or whatever. I feel it starts there with ownership."
How are these messages being received among the rest of the team? Well, according to freshman receiver Keagan Johnson. Strong leadership from the top is challenging each player to lead in their own way as every player has a role in turning the team's recent skid around.
"In high school, you are the older guy and do the encouraging," Johnson said. "You get here and you have guys encouraging you. It feels good just knowing someone has your back and wants it as bad as you. We have great influences but as a collective unit we want it bad. We're doing everything in our power to give our best performances."
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Like those past teams that correct their in-season issues, this group now has a chance to see how they'll respond.
To their credit, Ferentz says the leaders have done everything right.
Now the bigger question: Will it mean a win on Saturday?
"Their attitude has been good. That's been consistent," Ferentz said. "Now it's about improvement, having that improvement show, and that's the funny thing about football, and probably a lot of things but football especially, you never know when that's going to surface.
"But it's just you just keep chipping away."
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.