Iowa Football

Is Iowa really playing an 0-4 Penn State team? Yep.

This is weirdest Big Ten season, on and off the field.

Head football coaches Kirk Ferentz of Iowa and James Franklin of Penn State shake hands before their teams' game at Kinn
Head football coaches Kirk Ferentz of Iowa and James Franklin of Penn State shake hands before their teams' game at Kinnick Stadium on Oct. 12, 2019. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

The math checks out.

When one team wins a game, another loses it. When one team climbs in its conference’s standings, another slips.

To have Iowa’s football team going into a game Saturday against a Penn State club that is 0-4 is jarring. Penn State doesn’t lose four straight games. It hasn’t started a season 0-4 since 2001, and has never been 0-5.

It’s a team with a lot of players who had something to do with the Nittany Lions winning 42 games over the previous four seasons and going 28-8 in the Big Ten in that time. Its current coach, James Franklin, is the same person who led those other four teams.

Penn State was No. 7 in Associated Press’ preseason rankings. How did Franklin and his players get less talented so quickly? The answer, of course, is they didn’t.

“It just doesn’t add up,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday, “especially when you watch the film.”

“We are being tested right now and we are being challenged,” Franklin said. “We plan to answer the test and we plan to grow from this.

“Everybody’s trying to navigate this and there’s not too many of us (here) that have been through this before, specifically at this level.”

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If it weren’t for Ohio State and Wisconsin, you’d say little in the Big Ten was anchored down, or up. Indiana, a perennial afterthought, is 4-0. Northwestern was 1-8 in the league last year, but is 4-0 in 2020.

Michigan was feeble in its 49-11 home loss to Wisconsin last Saturday, and is 1-3. The Wolverines haven’t broken through under Jim Harbaugh the way Michigan men and women expect, but at least they were 32-12 in the Big Ten over his first five seasons.

Minnesota has gone from 11-2 a year ago to 1-3 this season.

Coastal Carolina and Liberty are in the Top 25. Indiana is in the top 10. Defending national champion LSU is 2-3. Penn State and Michigan are leaking oil.

Iowa has been one of the more successful even-keel programs in the nation. It hasn’t been back to a Big Ten title game since 2015, but it’s been over two years since it has gotten dominated the way Michigan State was mauled by the Hawkeyes this month.

Ferentz’s team is coming off two straight king-size wins, but you get the distinct sense he sees this season as a weekly quest just to field a healthy team and do the best that can be done under the circumstances rather than a pursuit of a Holy Grail.

“This year is going to have an asterisk next to it,” Ferentz said. “We’re all playing pretty much by the same rules, but region to region things are different. With the virus right now, you really don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes. You don’t know if teams have X amount of guys out, all those kinds of pieces of information, really. They’re not out there.

“It’s really hard to describe. It’s just been very different, very unusual. So I think that just kind of casts a shadow on this whole season, quite frankly.”

Meanwhile, the Indianas of the college football world haven’t tried to stop breaking through their own glass ceilings, much like Minnesota did a year ago. The Hoosiers have beaten Penn State and Michigan. There’s no asterisk as far as they’re concerned, just growth.

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“You have a group of programs that are battling like crazy to take that next step,” said Franklin, “and that is probably more challenging than it’s ever been.

“College football has changed. It’s changed dramatically. Expectations have changed. Resources have changed, facilities have changed.”

Here’s what hasn’t: Teams that have traditionally won a lot are expected to keep winning. And if you’re an Iowa, you better seize the moment when a Penn State is experiencing slippage. Because it’s probably a small window that will be closed when next you meet.

Comments: (319) 368-8840; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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