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EAST LANSING, Mich. — Everyone is allowed to be frustrated. In back-to-back weeks, the Hawkeyes have lost on the final play and the final series.
It’s easy to blow past the fact that Iowa (3-2, 0-2 Big Ten) faced the No. 4 team in the country one of those weeks and then traveled to a foe in which the deciding margin has always been not much more than a coin flip.
Frustration does that. It’s an emotion that blurs and twists facts.
Iowa is always going to have to play almost perfect football to beat Penn State. This isn’t a sport where anyone likes to admit to losing ground, but if you take an objective look at what Mark Dantonio’s Michigan State has done, well yeah, the Spartans are ahead of the Hawkeyes right now.
Not by much, as last weekend's 17-10 result at Spartan Stadium showed. Iowa’s reality right now is that it’s in last place in the Big Ten West Division. The digging out begins Saturday at Kinnick Stadium with Illinois (2-2, 0-1 Big Ten).
“I don’t think people understand how tough it is to win football games, at any level, no matter who you’re playing,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “I think we’ve had a healthy respect for what it takes.”
When Iowa football is stitched together the way it needs to be, a complementary element runs straight down the middle of it. If the offense doesn’t score, it’s moving the ball and keeping the defense off the field. When the offense flames out, the defense puts out the fire and gets the offense the ball back. Special teams does its job.
When Iowa football is working the way it needs to, it finds a way to climb those last hills in games. Obviously, that hasn’t happened the last two weeks.
“I think it’s a really easy time for us to be searching for excuses right now,” senior offensive tackle Sean Welsh said. “They’re loading up the box. Or we have injured guys. We’ve run well against defenses that have loaded up the box. Go back to Northwestern 2015. We had tons of injuries. It wasn’t an excuse for us that week and we had a great game.”
There are excuses and there are realities. Reality for Iowa’s offensive line right now is injuries and inexperience. Senior Boone Myers still is struggling with an ankle injury he suffered in camp. Center James Daniels missed a game because of injury and is having a hard time anchoring. Welsh, a third-team all-Big Ten guard last season, is playing tackle because senior Ike Boettger was lost for the season in week 2 with a ruptured Achilles. Left tackle Alaric Jackson is a redshirt freshman who shed 40 pounds last year and is in the first five starts of his career.
Opposing defensive coordinators are aware of this and they are attacking. The Hawkeyes have been held to 101 rushing yards total in the last two games. The .76 yards per carry against the Spartans was 122nd in the country last week.
Iowa’s passing game isn’t helping or hasn’t been able to help enough to keep defensive aggression in check. Sophomore quarterback Nate Stanley was pressured on nearly half of his dropbacks against MSU. He was hit at least four times and hurried in double digits.
The fact that Iowa’s passing game bottomed out last season (1,991 yards was the worst output since 1982) seems to have been forgotten, but, then again, that sounds an awful lot like an excuse.
Competitors spit on excuses. As it turns out, the Hawkeyes have some spit left.
“The next team isn’t going to care if we’re a young team,” running back Akrum Wadley said. “We can’t feel sorry for ourselves. We’ve got to man up.”
Lots of fingers pointed at punter Colten Rastetter after MSU. Yes, field position factored in 10 points for MSU. The fact that Iowa was forced to punt three times from inside its 10-yard line in the first half seems to escape those fingers.
The defense should be gloating, right? It held Penn State and Michigan State to 38 total points. That should be a winning number.
In the Big Ten standings this week and every week, the Iowa defense falls under “Iowa Hawkeyes” and not “Iowa defense.”
Senior linebacker Josey Jewell gets this. Complementary football?
“I think that starts with us (the defense) in the first half,” he said. “We didn’t play like we wanted to. We needed to be more efficient. We have to get all hats to the ball. We didn’t do that in the first half. We had some mental mistakes, missed tackles, things that are going to bite you later.
“We need to play the full four quarters if we want to win games like that. I wouldn’t blame anyone else but the defense.”
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