IOWA CITY — Just compare and contrast the coaches in the minutes after Northwestern’s victory at Kinnick Stadium.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald signaled for his team to huddle around him. The Wildcats (6-4, 6-1 Big Ten) cordially shook hands with a few Hawkeyes and then obediently gathered around their coach.
Fitzgerald bellered “Come here, c’mon.” He took a second to make sure everyone was there, or maybe to enjoy a milestone achievement for the program.
With Saturday's 14-10 victory over the Hawkeyes (6-4, 3-4), Northwestern clinched the Big Ten West Division and will play in the Big Ten title game.
The Wildcats might’ve known that before they gathered around Fitzgerald in the stadium glow at Kinnick. He made sure they knew.
“Wisconsin lost, Purdue lost and we won!” Fitzgerald said to his team, making the huddle immediately electric with ensuing jumping around.
Kitty corner from the Northwestern celebration, the Hawkeyes did the swarm and walked up the tunnel. It was like a vacuum. They couldn’t get out of there fast enough. Understandably.
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This was Iowa’s third straight loss. A season that once stood at 6-1 and had an air of Indianapolis around it will now likely expire in a quiet bowl game against a Pac-12 school on the west coast. And that’s only if the Hawkeyes can get it together in the next couple of weeks to finish off West Division lesser lights Illinois (4-6) and Nebraska (3-7). At 3-4 in the West, the Hawkeyes are one game ahead of Minnesota, Illinois and Nebraska for last place.
These programs are in very different places. Fitzgerald told the story of the Northwestern equipment guy asking if it was a good idea to bring the West Division celebratory gear, including hats and T-shirts, on the road.
Fitzgerald said of course and added that during the week, the West Division championship was used as motivation.
Iowa had similar motivation. It wasn’t out of a trip to Indianapolis when it kicked off against Northwestern. When it was over, the focal point of head coach Kirk Ferentz’s postgame was the absence of star tight end Noah Fant in key situations during the second half.
That went exactly how you’d think it’d go.
“So, yeah, we’re playing the guys out there that we feel are best in the situations that’s given to them,” Ferentz said.
Meanwhile, just before Ferentz spoke, Fant said he’s not injured and he does what the coaches tell him to do.
So, not only are they losing, here’s this little bit of drama. Not only did you have to endure Northwestern celebrating a division title almost on the Tigerhawk at the 50-yard line, you get some weird battle of wills between the coaching staff and a star player.
It’s bad when Ferentz, whose go-to hacking at the exact words in a question he doesn’t like went as badly as Iowa’s run game vs. Northwestern, deflects to the real problem.
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“To me the biggest story of the game was we couldn’t run the ball effectively in the second half and they did,” Ferentz said. “ ... Offensively we didn’t hit many big plays. That’s one of the games where I think our inefficiency on third down (3 of 13 for the Hawkeyes) and their ability to run the ball was probably the biggest thing.”
The myth that Iowa is sound as a rush offense is over, right? It's 11th in the league this year (147.5), it was 11th last year and eighth in 2016. Forget about Fant snaps, when is that going to get right?
Iowa has gotten away with being light at defensive tackle and inexperienced at linebacker for most of the season. Things caved in against Wisconsin (44 carries, 210 yards) and that happened again vs. Northwestern (46 carries, 184 yards).
And so now the Hawkeyes have losing streaks against all of the relevant teams in the West. This is three consecutive losses to Wisconsin and Northwestern to go along with two consecutive defeats to Purdue.
Championship runs in November are the goal. Iowa won them all in 2015. Too many losses on the front end made a 3-1 November in 2016 irrelevant. A November victory over Ohio State last year was immediately dulled with a historic loss at Wisconsin and a home loss to Purdue.
This year, November started with two straight losses that crushed any West Division title hopes.
The Fant stuff is a thing. You also probably want to know when the next cool, fun November is coming. That’s something Ferentz can’t really answer, but that’s something that has to happen.
You only get so many irrelevant Novembers.
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