The Hawkeyes are all opportunity right now
Two potential season-defining games left, Iowa gets push from new names
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Kirk Ferentz gets big picture with his team for only a few moments every Sunday, and then it's back to figuring things out.
This Sunday was kind of a break. The Hawkeyes (6-4, 3-3 Big Ten) embarked on bye week No. 2 after Saturday's comfortable victory at Purdue, 38-14. They checked off a few ills against the Boilermakers, namely injecting some fuel into a moribund running game (318 rushing yards) and scoring some points in the second half (24 points compared to just 10 in the last four games), and now they take a week to take a breath.
"The big picture is we had three games and we felt like we'd have a chance to win all three if we played better," Ferentz said. "We have to play our best football. That's the only chance we'll have."
Iowa clinched bowl eligibility with Saturday's victory, but, make no mistake, the last two games carry huge meaning for the Iowa program. Forget whether or not Iowa ends up in the Gator Bowl or the Texas Bowl, there is still meaning to be found in 2103.
The Hawkeyes will come out of their break to play host to Michigan (6-3, 2-3), which goes into its road trip to Northwestern this week with a two-game losing streak and zero Big Ten championship hopes. Last week, the Wolverines dropped a bitter 17-13 home loss to Nebraska. Michigan was held to minus-21 yards rushing — a week after sinking to a school-record low minus-48 yards rushing in a loss to the Spartans. Quarterback Devin Gardner was sacked seven times for the second straight game.
"Whoever questions our toughness, they can shove it,” Gardner said after the game.
After hosting the Wolverines, the Hawkeyes travel to Lincoln to face Nebraska (7-2, 4-1), which kept slim Big Ten championship game hopes alive with the victory at Ann Arbor. Since the Huskers joined the Big Ten in 2011, Iowa is 0-for-2 having scored just 14 points in the two games.
"The best thing we could do [last week] was come out of here with six [wins]," Ferentz said. "We got that done. Now, we have a chance to regroup a little bit, try to be smart this week and then get ready for two tough ballgames. First one first, that'll be the most important when we get going."
Another thing last weekend's victory did for the Hawkeyes was snap a six-game November losing streak. Iowa's last November victory was at Purdue on Nov. 19, 2011.
"This allows us to take a step back and think about where we want to go as a team," offensive tackle Brett Van Sloten said. "We got win No. 6. That was a goal. We took care of business. We're going to turn our focus and think about where we want to go as a team."
Other than a second bye week -- which Ferentz said will see less time spent on recruiting than Iowa's first bye the week of Oct. 12 -- what will help the Hawkeyes come out with successful November is maturation from players who've yet to fully bloom.
The prime example of that coming out of Purdue was senior wide receiver Don Shumpert. After a few weeks out of the lineup while recovering from a foot injury, Shumpert caught two passes for 69 yards against the Boilers. Both of his catches led to touchdowns. Shumpert also jumped on a fumble after running back Jordan Canzeri gained 18 yards on Iowa's second drive of the third quarter. That drive also ended in an Iowa TD.
"A lot of it comes from the guys getting behind each other and continuing to build momentum," linebacker James Morris said. "If you have an opportunity to make a big play or keep pushing momentum or turn the game, you have to step up and execute. It's not easy. Everyone has to be aware of it. Someone has to make a play. I thought Don Shumpert really stepped up. Neither of those were easy catches."
Canzeri also belongs on this list. He parlayed a 43-yard rush against Wisconsin -- one of the Big Ten's best defenses -- into opportunity at Purdue. He responded with 20 rushes for 165 yards and a TD. With senior tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz out of the game with what looked like a head injury, redshirt freshman George Kittle caught three passes for 37 yards.
Defensively, junior defensive end Mike Hardy, in just his third career start, had two tackles for loss, including a half sack. Even though he's been a starter all season, sophomore Drew Ott also might belong on this list. He's playing his best football right now, with 2.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks against Purdue. Ott now has 4.5 tackles for loss in the last three games."I think overall our defense is improving and I think it starts up front," Ferentz said. "If you look at it a year ago, we were really inexperienced up there. . . . I think that group has really grown since the year has gone on. It starts there. We have a lot of room for improvement and that's exciting."