Iowa football's game-by-game mentality is particularly relevant against Nebraska this week

Kennington Lloyd Smith III
Des Moines Register

When sizing up Iowa football's improbable late-season surge, the players come back to one moment: a message from head coach Kirk Ferentz following the team's 54-10 loss to Ohio State.

He emphasized that from that point on, it was a five-game season and plenty to still play for. Then, bowl eligibility seemed like the most attainable goal for a team on a three-game losing streak. But after four straight wins, the opportunity for back-to-back Big Ten West titles is right in front of them.

"If you buy into doing just the little things every day consistently, it's going to add up," said linebacker Jack Campbell after Iowa's 13-10 win over Minnesota last Saturday. "You might not see it day one, you might not see it day 43, but you might see it on day 122. That's kind of where I feel like this push through has happened."

The path for Iowa to reach Indianapolis and the Big Ten championship game is simple: beat Nebraska on Friday afternoon. Unlike last season where Iowa beat Nebraska on a Friday and needed a Minnesota win over Wisconsin the next day to clinch, it's completely in the Hawkeyes' hands this time. The implications of Friday loom large but internally, Iowa's players aren't looking at it as anything more than just another game.

"It feels different in the sense that we haven't, since I've been here, we haven't had this opportunity to control our destiny in the last week," said quarterback Spencer Petras. "But I think the key for this week for us is to not make it more than this. It's still football... you never want to go in too tight and that kind of thing if you're thinking about division titles on the line. But it's going to be fun, first time we've been in this situation in a while so definitely excited about it."

On Tuesday, Ferentz outlined how the team's trying to keep a business-like approach this week. He noted that each win up until this point has been equally important, without a win over Northwestern there wouldn't be the scenario that exists today. Nebraska is no different, but that doesn't make the challenge of disassociating the game itself from its magnitude any easier.

"I hope they can do it," Ferentz said. "These guys are all college students. They probably follow football more than I do quite frankly with the outside world. I think we all know what's at stake. My encouragement has been that we have to focus on this week purely, that's what it's all about. That's our attitude five weeks ago. That was the goal.

"I don't think (any game) is more important than the other in the big picture. If you take care of what you're supposed to take care of, you might be fortunate enough to be in a good position. We find ourselves there now. The worst thing we can do right now is start thinking about things on the outside, other stuff. We have to worry about getting ready for a tough opponent."

More:Here's what Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz said in his press conference before facing Nebraska

One of the biggest points of emphasis this week from Iowa's coaches is how dangerous Nebraska can be. The players who were on last year's team need little reminder of how close the Cornhuskers were to winning in 2021, and close games have been a consistent theme over the last several years. Though Iowa's won the last seven matchups, the last four contests have been decided by an average of just 4.75 points.

Despite a 3-8 record, Iowa players pinpointed areas where Nebraska presents challenges. According to Campbell, the Huskers' unpredictability on offense from play to play will make it difficult for Iowa's defense to line up correctly every down. And Nebraska's defense is similar to Wisconsin's, a base 3-4 (odd-man front), which shredded Iowa's offensive line for six sacks a few weeks ago.

"(Tight ends coach Abdul Hodge) has really emphasized that this is their bowl game and it's for a trophy," said tight end Luke Lachey. "No one owns that right now, so we have to go out and earn that back for us. We know that they're going to come out and give everything they have because it's their last game and we have to be ready for that."

Iowa football can clinch back-to-back Big Ten West titles with a win over Nebraska on Friday.

There's also an added element to Friday's game as it'll be senior day at Kinnick Stadium. In the era of extra eligibility dating back to the 2020 COVID season, players must wrestle with the decision to forgo that extra season at Iowa or return for a final year. Ferentz said that hasn't been much of a talking point this week and players like Petras echoed those sentiments.

“There’s so much to play for, there’s not a ton of time to think about senior day," Petras said. "Just more so focused on trying to get the win and earning the right to play in Indianapolis.”

More:Leistikow: Honoring an Iowa football senior class that has seen it all

Iowa's followed the mantra of "the next game is the most important" consistently, but Friday's game epitomizes that. Win and walk away with two trophies in the final home game or lose and the luster of this four-game streak quickly fades. The Hawkeyes aren't discounting what another division title would mean for the program, but that potential feeling is on the back burner. Right now they've only got one thing on their mind— winning on Friday.

"It'd be huge, Campbell said. "But right now the main goal is Nebraska because the only way that anyone's gonna get (to the Big Ten championship) is through Nebraska, it all starts with them... The full focus is on Nebraska, and not even thinking about anything past that and just being the best versions of ourselves."