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MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — Suddenly, the time is now. And whether they want to admit it or not, and most of them don’t, the time is now for the 2016 Iowa Hawkeyes.
Yes, yes, Saturday's game against Minnesota (3-1, 0-1 Big Ten) is game No. 6 of 12, the halfway point. The games are coming fast and so they hold a little more meaning every week. At the halfway point, you can understand, however, that the actual participants in the games see the one in front of them and simply can’t allow themselves to see beyond the immediate.
The Hawkeyes (3-2, 1-1) can’t be thinking about the Badgers when there are Golden Gophers trying to chew through their jugulars.
Let’s go to running back Akrum Wadley for a megadose of reality.
“I think every game is a must-win game,” the junior said. “This game, with our backs against the wall, we’ve got to come out swinging.”
Goal-setting is the lifeblood of sports. After losing two of their last three, including a pair of home defeats to double-digit underdogs, the Hawkeyes’ goals are rapidly moving from something you shoot for to something you reassess.
There are trophy games. The Hawkeyes won all four last season and now have a run of five consecutive with their win over Iowa State earlier this year. And then there’s defending the Big Ten West Division title.
Saturday's result at TCF Bank Stadium directly affects both of those goals.
“In order for us to accomplish our goals, winning this game is a big thing,” Wadley said. “Not only for our record, but one of our goals was to keep all of the trophies in our building.”
Last week’s loss to Northwestern before a Kinnick Stadium crowd that turned angry between perceived non-calls against the Hawkeyes and frustration with their own team was the kind of thing that had upperclassmen getting together and talking.
Not the “emergency players-only” meeting cliche, but in those smaller moments, like walking to the practice field. So, yes, the Hawkeyes, the overwhelming pick to repeat in the West Division, are as shocked — but maybe not quite as angry — as you are.
“We’ve all kind of put it on ourselves and had a meeting,” guard Boone Myers said. “‘Step it up, because what we’re doing isn’t good enough.’ That’s what we’ve been focused on.”
Crossroads moment, this weekend with the Gophers?
“I wouldn’t say that right now,” Myers said. “Do we need to get better? Yes, we do. We have a lot of stuff we need to get better at, but there’s a lot of season left. We need to take care of what we need to do.”
Maybe the “crossroads” question isn’t fair to those who, you know, actually play the games. They’re worried about what to do with their hands and their feet. Sometimes, you really can’t even identify the crossroads moment until long after.
In 2008, the Hawkeyes lost in a brilliantly played game at Illinois. At that time, they fell to 5-4 and it was cue head coach Kirk Ferentz’s “grinding coffee” line, one that, yes, describes struggle but with a breakthrough that feels inches away.
Iowa went on to win its next 15 games. It didn’t lose until its starting QB suffered a broken ankle against Northwestern.
The “grinding coffee” line was dropped this week. It was used in reference to the inconsistencies in Iowa’s passing game. Again, the “terrific struggle with a solution within reach” theme was in play. But also remember, Ferentz used “stuck in sand” to describe the passing game after Northwestern, so take it with a grain of salt.
“Who knows what’s going to happen when you got the ball on the 40 with a little momentum, a little inertia as opposed to going backward,” Ferentz said. “I know it’s the same way for you as it is any of us, when you watch a team going backward, it just feels like you’re grinding coffee.
“... I believe if we can clean some of that up, you start to gain a little momentum, you start to look like a football team as opposed to climbing up Mount Everest, and that’s kind of how it feels, and those are the things that we need to address and do a better job of.”
Feels like a crossroads moment.
“It’s important this week that we take a step forward in all phases,” defensive tackle Nathan Bazata said.
Another crossroads example can be found in 2010 and you probably already know where this is going. Iowa was 5-1 going into a meeting with No. 7 Wisconsin at Kinnick. It was a game where lightning was made. Flashes of brilliance. Craters were left all over the field. Future NFL superstar J.J. Watt jumped over future NFL offensive lineman Julian Vandervelde to block a PAT.
Wisconsin went on to win, 31-30. Iowa bounced back the next week and stomped No. 14 Michigan State, but then slid off the table. After the Wisconsin game, Iowa finished 3-3 and 8-5 for a season of towering expectations.
Don’t have to look far for an Iowa team with expectations. The 12-2 2015 season, returning quarterback, seven starters returning on defense, hey, here’s an Iowa team with high expectations right here, right now.
“Just owning up to what we’re doing out there on the field, taking ownership,” senior cornerback Desmond King said. “We have to move forward. Put things in the past, put it in the rearview mirror and keep our heads mentally ready and on straight.”
Let’s do the math. Iowa’s late October and November likely will include three ranked teams in Wisconsin (No. 13), Michigan (No. 4) and Nebraska (No. 12). With two home losses, Iowa has burned up its margin for error.
Land of 10,000 lakes and one crossover game.
“Just any way to get a win,” quarterback C.J. Beathard said. “We don’t expect it to be an easy task. Minnesota is a really good team. We’ve got respect for them. We feel like it’s going to be a battle. As long as we play tough and play hard for the full 60 minutes, I think we give ourselves a chance to come out with the win and that’s the most we can do.”
Why not turn to 2015 for a crossroads moment? You also probably know where this one is going.
The Hawkeyes went into Northwestern a 1-point favorite. They also were missing defensive end Drew Ott, who suffered a career-ending knee injury the week before. Running back LeShun Daniels was out with an ankle injury. Running back Jordan Canzeri left with an ankle injury in the first quarter. Then-true freshman James Daniels started at guard. Now-guard Sean Welsh switched out to right tackle.
At this point of the season, Beathard was severely compromised with what turned out to be a torn groin and sports hernia that needed offseason surgery.
Iowa flattened the Wildcats in a game that Ferentz said he would’ve been happy to win in a forfeit.
This week has been all about what’s wrong with the Hawkeyes and what the fixes might or might not be. The magic to 2015 Iowa was the muscular rise to the occasion, forceful dominion over shaky circumstance and backing their own responses to what would otherwise seem inevitable.
So, what Wadley said.