EVANSTON, Ill., — Northwestern’s Ryan Field doesn’t really have a postgame area. The opposing coach conducts his news conference in a random room in the ticket office that’s basically a building beneath the south end zone bleachers.
After the Hawkeyes’ 17-10 overtime loss last Saturday, Iowa players were lined up against that building undereath the bleachers.
It was a sunny Saturday. The Hawkeyes fielding questions in the shadows under bleachers with a brick building serving as the backdrop felt sort of appropriate for the mood, which was as frozen as you’d think it’d be.
At 4-3 and 1-3 in the Big Ten, things look dark right now. Nothing is going exactly right. The things that do work unplug at inopportune times. It’s one of those kinds of years now and the Northwestern result is the quintessential symptom of “one of those years” for the Iowa program.
The Hawkeyes hit first and held a 7-0 halftime lead that easily should’ve been 10-0 and probably should’ve been 17-0. That slim lead leaked away. Miguel Recinos’ 48-yard field goal to tie the game 10-10 with 1:30 left was Iowa’s big second-half highlight.
That was preceeded by a false start from the right side of the Iowa offensive line on what would’ve been fourth-and-inches from Northwestern’s 26. That was the quintessential play in a game that was quintessential of one of those years that ends in a non-descript bowl and that leaves no echo.
“You have to find a way to win close games,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said in room inside the Northwestern ticket office. “For us, that’s been historic, for the most part. It gets down to detail, a little better preparation, a little better practice.
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“Part of it is growing pains and part of it is we’ve got to improve faster and get a little better here if we’re going to flip this thing over. It’s really close, these games are close.”
That’s obviously true, but it doesn’t cushion the blow. Three losses by a total of 16 points isn’t a stuck landing. Five more weeks with an offense that’s 10th in the Big Ten with 350.3 yards per game and with an offensive philosophy that values the run but is paired with a rush offense that’s 13th in the league at 3.54 yards per carry is potentially going to be a very long, slow and frustrating five weeks. Potentially, potentially.
In his five or whatever minutes with his back literally against a brick wall, running back Akrum Wadley offered up a sea of no comments. He did like Iowa’s first quarter, when the Hawkeyes looked as if they might run over Northwestern, piling up 128 yards (including 53 on the ground) on 23 compared to NU’s 29 yards on nine plays.
“We started fast, that was one of our goals going into the game,” said Wadley, who ended up with 90 yards on 26 carries. “We’ve just got to keep it up.”
The running game that everyone thought Iowa would have — including the staff — isn’t there and might not show up this season. Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz’s playcalling against NU had no compass in the second half, when the Hawkeyes managed 74 yards on 30 plays.
When you saw the reverse for wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette, you knew. Nothing worked consistently and they were running out of ideas.
Maybe Brian Ferentz explaining how that went would’ve done it for you. You got and all you’re going to get is Kirk Ferentz. The long-standing policy of assistants not being available for interviews remains just that, long standing. Maybe you’re with Kirk Ferentz’s measured approach in moments when things are on fire. Maybe you’re not.
Maybe the best spokesman for the program right now is sophomore tight end Noah Fant. Yes, he dropped the fourth-down pass that would’ve bought the Hawkeyes another set of downs in overtime.
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Consider this: If Fant would’ve been tackled right where he caught the ball at the NU 13, would Iowa have scored the TD it needed to get to OT No. 2? Iowa had five drives that went for less than 13 yards. It had two more than went for less than 20 yards.
Fant showered, put on his team sweats, slung on his backpack and walked to his spot under the bleachers. A clump of media formed in front of him and he bled honest reaction, honest answers. A little bit of sorrow, a little bit of “this won’t define me.”
Northwestern players started to stream onto the field. Iowa players were in that netherworld of shaking hands and being congenial while trying to line up for the “swarm” off of the field.
Sophomore quarterback Nate Stanley dropped everything and made his way right to Fant, offering anything he had to bring Fant back to the land of the living.
“It meant a lot. He said just said keep his head up,” Fant said. “He delivered a great ball, he did what he was supposed to do. I’ve got to come up on my end of the stick. It hurts and I’ve just got to get better from it and keep working.”
Fant is still standing. The Hawkeyes are, too. It doesn’t count for points or key stops and it won’t make back-to-back weeks against top 10 teams Ohio State and Wisconsin any more palatable after losing at Northwestern.
They’re still here. Maybe you are, maybe you aren’t.
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