Hlas: Hawkeyes further than a play away, and know it

For Iowa to be Big Ten West player, it must start playing

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IOWA CITY — In the last few days, I’ve heard two different things that are equally wrong when it comes to Iowa football.

“They got all the breaks last year; they weren’t as good as their record.”

That was the nutshell analysis from a few e-mailers over the weekend after the 3-2 Hawkeyes’ 38-31 loss to Northwestern. Then there was this from Iowa cornerback Desmond King Tuesday:

“We’re a few plays away from being 5-0, from being undefeated. A field goal and a touchdown. We realize that.”

Yes, it was fortunate Marshall Koehn made a 57-yard, last-second field goal to beat Pittsburgh. Yes, it was lucky Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave fumbled the ball away on a play from Iowa’s 1-yard line on the Badgers’ next-to-last-possession of a 10-6 game.

But the Hawkeyes drove 31 yards in 50 seconds (quarterback C.J. Beathard ran three times for 27 of those yards) to give Koehn that shot at glory. Iowa’s defense kept Wisconsin out of the end zone all game, not just on the deep drive with the fumbled ending.

Iowa and Michigan State were 5-0 in regular-season games decided by one score. They didn’t luck their way to the league championship game.

On the flip side, this Iowa team wasn’t one good play from beating North Dakota State and another from holding off Northwestern.

Those games weren’t decided by misfortune or curious officiating. They were about getting outplayed and everyone who watched the games knows it. So saying you’re close to being 5-0 is useful only to remind yourself success is attainable and all isn’t hopeless.

King wasn’t being naive. He’s saying positive things to us, which is what everyone would want and expect. But it’s doubtful he walked off the Kinnick Stadium field Saturday thinking “Darn, we were one play away.”

Football is portrayed as sports’ equivalent of Advanced Placement calculus. The coaches burn the midnight oil breaking down game films, running percentages, honing schemes and strategies for so many scenarios, and matching their genius against the other side’s.

But it mostly boils down to whether your players have the right stuff, above and below the neck.

Do you have enough guys who shine between the white lines on Saturdays? Do you have enough whose light bulbs will flip on in time?

Iowa had over two tons of those guys a year ago. If the starting lineup had any soft spots, they were well-hidden. This year, things have yet to harden on either side of the ball.

Do these 3-2 Hawkeyes have light bulbs that are just a turn or two in the socket from burning brightly, in time to stop this season from being a total disappointment?

“Typically, improvement’s not dramatic, doesn’t usually happen overnight,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday. “And that’s the whole concept behind ‘Break the Rock.’ It’s repeated swings at the thing, and you just keep hammering away.

“First thing comes to mind when you bring that up is Eric Steinbach, who for years, literally years, if he was going left, he would drag his right elbow. It was driving me crazy, driving (offensive line coach) Joe Philbin crazy.

“And it was a Tuesday practice ... but he actually went left and brought his back elbow with him. Which doesn’t sound like much to you, but it was a breakthrough moment for him. I remember looking right at Joe Philbin; we both couldn’t believe it.”

Steinbach became a consensus first-team All-America guard, and a 9-year pro.

The trouble is, the season goes by quickly. Saturday is Iowa’s halfway point. Maybe the Hawkeyes will be formidable at some point. But to have any realistic hope of repeating as Big Ten West champions, they have to win Saturday at Minnesota.

The Hawkeyes won’t do that just by having another play or two go their way. They have to be better. Better than the Gophers, and better than they’ve been.

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