IOWA CITY, Iowa — Kirk Ferentz still can see a flicker in his team’s eyes.
The longtime Iowa football coach said as much in his opening statement Tuesday. His Hawkeyes are coming off a 41-14 battering at Penn State and stand a disappointing 5-4 overall with three games to go. Their Big Ten West Division repeat hopes seem almost as likely as buying a winning Powerball ticket.
But Ferentz said Tuesday the team remains engaged rather than discouraged, which gives him hope moving forward.
“Any time you go through a tough loss, any loss, but certainly a disappointing loss, teams can either split or they can pull together a little bit,” Ferentz said. “And I’ve only witnessed positive actions and behaviors from our players.”
His players responded to media inquiries with their usual professionalism. If they are considering mailing in their final stretch, they certainly didn’t show it. But the fact we’re even bringing this up shows there’s a general unease in Hawkeyeland beyond facing a highly ranked opponent.
It’s strange to think we’re only a year removed from one of the great seasons in Iowa history and we’re at somewhat of a crossroads with this program. I’m not talking about beating No. 3 Michigan on Saturday night. The Wolverines are quite possibly the best team Iowa has faced since 2006, the last time Michigan was ranked in the top three.
What we are talking about is another, deeper round of Ferentz fatigue. That’s where we sat for most of 2015, at least until the season kicked off. Season-ticket sales plummeted by 17 percent last year and two games didn’t crack 60,000 in paid attendance. Of seven home dates, only one sold out. That decline was the cumulative effect from a five-year run of middle-of-the-pack play. The Hawkeyes were 34-30 overall and 19-21 in Big Ten action from 2010 through 2014. Twice they hit eight wins and twice they reached seven. That’s about as ordinary as you get in college football.
Outside of the win-loss record, what was exasperating for fans was the team’s inability to consistently move the football. In 2010 and 2011, Iowa combined for 51 passing touchdowns and averaged 234.7 yards through the air. Only once since offensive coordinator Greg Davis took over in 2012 have the Hawkeyes surpassed 205 yards per game in a season, and that was in 2014. Only once since 2011 have the Hawkeyes thrown for at least 20 touchdowns, and that also was in 2014. Iowa finished 7-6 in 2014 and lost all four rivalry trophy games, so there was no joy in Hawkeyeville that year.
Life seemed to turn around for Iowa’s offense in 2015. While the passing numbers remained modest, the rushing statistics were the highest since 2008, when Doak Walker Award winner Shonn Greene rushed for 100 yards every week. Collectively, Iowa’s offense was balanced and potent. More of the same was expected this year with second-team all-Big Ten quarterback C.J. Beathard returning, as well as five linemen, a tight end, a wide receiver and a running back with starting experience.
Instead, this offense blew a tire when it lost top wideout Matt VandeBerg to a foot injury. It has since has veered into the ditch. Only four seasons since 2000 have the Hawkeyes averaged fewer than the 335.4 yards per game that this squad puts up. Twice — 2012 and 2007 — Iowa missed bowl games, the only seasons over that span. History shows that 2004 was an aberration, because Iowa’s dominant defense rallied the team to a co-Big Ten championship. The defense was still there in 2003, when Iowa won 10 games
With Michigan on deck, this year’s numbers — 182.9 yards passing, 152.5 rushing yards — are likely to take another hit. If Iowa’s offense produces a similar lifeless effort to what we’ve seen the last two months outside of a blowout at lowly Purdue, fans will have trouble buying in once again. Another home loss marks four straight at Kinnick Stadium. That’s demoralizing for any fan base, let alone a proud one like at Iowa.
The season won’t end on Saturday with a loss, and moral victories are for try-hard losers. But a competitive game against a terrific opponent would show the flicker Ferentz sees is not just blinking at the sun. It shows this team still has heart entering the final stages of a disappointing 2016 campaign.
That’s not only important for this year, but it’s vital for 2017 and the years to come.