Iowa needs to find that 'tough, smart, physical, together' thing

Is a noted lack of enthusiasm on the sideline a cause for concern?

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IOWA CITY — This is a players’ week. Instead of home with their families, the Hawkeyes have a movie night on Wednesday, the Thanksgiving holiday on Thursday and one last regular-season time together in helmets Friday against the Huskers.

Seemingly every week, the players wear a new T-shirt with a motivational design/tagline. Tuesday, a few showed up with the phrase “Tough Smart Physical Together” plastered above a silhouette of a Hawkeye swarm.

T-shirts can’t block, but the message can’t hurt.

Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz had the headphones on until the bitter end during last week’s 24-15 loss to Purdue. He didn’t notice how much Kinnick Stadium had emptied. It was like Iowa’s team color was aluminum bleacher gray.

“I was told afterward,” Ferentz said. “... It was cold as could be. You probably noticed that. I did. It’s probably 10 degrees, 15 degrees colder when you’re losing. That’s unusual, but that’s how it feels. And we’re out of the game. It wasn’t looking good there the last couple of minutes, people left. I can certainly understand.”

Your reaction to a dreary loss to Purdue on a cold early evening in mid-November is obviously out of Ferentz’s control. The lack of emotion on the sideline is another story. A few players talked about that Tuesday.

It was a theme in the postgame, having a good week of practice and then not taking it to the field.

“During the week, we were flying around, stuff like that,” defensive tackle Nathan Bazata said. “When it came to Saturday, it just wasn’t there. The enthusiasm wasn’t there. We’re focusing on that during practice.”

By “enthusiasm,” Bazata said, “Just being happy for each other. The defense being happy for the offense when they make a play and the other way around, including special teams. We were just kind of flat.”

That also was a theme. Quarterback Nate Stanley said it minutes after in the postgame. Maybe it’s something, maybe it’s nothing.

“I don’t know how to explain that,” Bazata said. “Coach (Phil) Parker mentioned it on Sunday. After re-watching the game, you noticed it.”

Enthusiasm is fuel, especially when it’s cold and the stadium is starting to empty and the Purdue game is getting away from you.

“When they (the offense) creates a spark, that helps us get going with more energy,” Bazata said. “We want them to get back out there, so they can have a chance to make more big plays. That’s what helps us win games.”

In the second half against Purdue, there wasn’t much to be enthusiastic about. The Boilermakers scorched the right side of Iowa’s secondary for two TDs. Corners Manny Rugamba and Michael Ojemudia were benched after allowing big completions. True freshman Matt Hankins got beat for a TD. Then, potential all-American corner Josh Jackson switched from the left to the right. Hankins went to the left side and will be the guy this week. Another hit for Iowa’s secondary is safety Amani Hooker’s absence. He’ll miss his third straight game after suffering a bruised knee against Ohio State.

“Maybe I could see that a little bit on a couple of plays that we had,” linebacker Josey Jewell said. “For the most part, I thought guys were going out there and working their butts off and trying to stay enthusiastic.

“Sometimes, there’s not the greatest amount of plays you can be enthusiastic about. You need to create those plays. You need to execute. It comes down to executing first and then we can be enthusiastic about it.”

There’s a chance for enthusiasm for the Hawkeyes (6-5, 3-5 Big Ten) Friday at Nebraska (4-7, 3-5). The Huskers have dropped their last three. In their last six games, the Huskers defense has allowed, in order, 353 yards, 279, 199, 232, 409 and 263. Nebraska’s 5.44 yards per carry is last in the Big Ten and tied for 120th in the country.

It sounds like the Huskers’ defense is a two-foot putt right now. Can Iowa’s offense sink that? The Hawkeyes have been held to less than 100 rushing yards in five games this season. All five were losses.

This is week 12. The young players are two games away from officially being a year older. The inexperience excuse rings hollow. For the coaches, they’ve watched their zone blocking scheme not work an awful lot this year.

What do you reach for when the zone plays don’t work?

“We do what we do,” Ferentz said. “The biggest thing is just trying to avoid the things that stop you and stop drives. Whether it’s 5-yard penalties — right now for us, that’s a challenge, if we get a 5-yarder — major penalties are certainly a challenge and dropped balls, all the little things that don’t seem that big but they take you off course.”

Nebraska is 110th in the nation in rush defense. Iowa is 108th in the nation in rush offense. Nebraska probably keeps its vaunted sellout streak Friday only because fans know head coach Mike Riley will be fired before the weekend is over.

Kinnick crowds have mostly ebbed this season. The high point was 69,894 for the Illinois game (homecoming), just 691 under the 70,585 capacity. Games against Penn State and Ohio State didn’t reach sellout status. The Purdue crowd of 60,554 was Iowa’s smallest since 56,041 for the North Texas game in 2015.

Read more: Hawkeyes working through frustration of last two weeks

The north end zone project kicked into high gear after last weekend’s game. The $90 million renovation already has fenced off and ground spikes into Evashevski Drive.

“Pretty soon that thing is coming down over there,” Ferentz said, looking toward the north end zone from the Hansen Performance Center. “I don’t know anything about the new project other than it’s been well received, people have jumped on board. We’re appreciative of that.

“My only request is make it higher and louder and I think they’ve got it figured out. So, we’re really excited about what it’s going to be like to be in there next year.”

Construction on the plays that will generate that noise and excitement is ongoing.

l Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz

Nov. 21 Ferentz Transcript.pdf by Marc Morehouse on Scribd

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