IOWA CITY, Iowa —This game and this season serve as a microcosm to why Iowa football fans are among the nation’s most insecure bases.
Wrapped inside a 38-31 loss to Northwestern at Kinnick Stadium were the same problems that have plagued Iowa all season. The defense can’t stop the run, the offense can’t protect quarterback C.J. Beathard, and playcalling drifts from awesome to awful in the span of a few possessions. Then, of course, there are the penalties.
All of it is maddening. This was supposed to be a stellar season. Beathard was last year’s gunslinging cowboy who seemingly could do no wrong. Cornerback Desmond King won the Jim Thorpe Award and blew off NFL millions to return. Heck, we all know what they had coming back from last year’s 12-2 team.
But that team is gone. It’s in the media guide. The 21 seniors who guided that team to the Big Ten West Division title are fans, not players. They formed the backbone with grit and accountability to the 2015 success. This year was supposed to be the stars’ turn at showcasing their talents. Yet, here we are on the Hawkeye Express to Disappointment Junction once again.
Anyone who’s watched this program over the last 20 years knows where this season is headed. The ashes of Iowa teams with unfulfilled expectations litter the tracks along 7-5 road. There’s the talented 1997 team with Tavian Banks and Tim Dwight that started 4-0 until injuries chipped away and it lost three games by a field goal or less. A potential 10-win team became 7-5.
More recently, there’s 2010. The previous season, Iowa had won 11 games and the Orange Bowl. Everybody was back from quarterback Ricky Stanzi to Orange Bowl MVP defensive end Adrian Clayborn. Iowa had the nation’s best defensive line, at least that was the narrative in the summer of 2010. Then close, painful losses became its undoing with moments that make any Iowa fan wince. (You don’t want to relive those again, do you?) The same deal in 2005.
Two years ago, Iowa was among the Big Ten West Division favorites, only to lose all four trophy games. That includes a two-point loss to Wisconsin, a three-point overtime defeat to Nebraska and a 51-14 clubbing at Minnesota. It was as unsatisfying as it was unremarkable. You can staple 2011 to the flip side of 2014.
Teams that underachieve in Iowa City are nearly as infamous as the fantastic ones are revered. That’s where the insecurity comes in. Iowa fans want to beat their chest like everyone else. But every time they do so, inexplicable losses amplify the frustration. It’s almost superstition meeting reality, a self-fulfilling prophesy. Every time Iowa expects to contend, the Hawkeyes falter. When nobody pays attention, they carve out an impressive season. It’s hell living like that, yet Iowa fans have come to expect it, even predict it. No wonder there’s so much insecurity. It’s Charlie Brown kicking the football when nobody’s looking, then getting it yanked away when everyone is cheering.
That brings us to this season and the ills that Iowa cannot cure. It has a bad run defense. For five weeks the players and coaches have tried to rationalize its issues with cliches about execution and run fits and communication. The superficial explanations have drifted from legitimate reasons to head scratching.
Iowa allowed just one team to run for more than 90 yards through five weeks in 2015. Same in 2014. And 2013. This year? All five opponents have rushed for at least 125 yards. For a program which stakes its reputation on stopping the run, it’s a colossal issue. Considering both the defensive tackles and middle linebacker have returned from last year, it’s perplexing as well. But as we’ve seen in Iowa’s past, the program struggles to replace its unheralded role players, not its stars.
Last year’s team included team-first tough guys like safety Jordan Lomax, weak side linebacker Cole Fisher and defensive end Nate Meier who filled gaps, made stops and largely went unnoticed. Their replacements have yet to match their propensity for limiting big plays.
Northwestern rushed for 198 yards Saturday. A week ago, Rutgers bullied the Hawkeyes for 193. North Dakota State ran for 243. If those numbers came against Wisconsin, Michigan, even Minnesota, it’s understandable. But considering those three teams join Iowa’s schedule the next six weeks, you’d better call Cedar Rapids’ flood protection czar to build a scheme to stop those running games. Otherwise, their running attacks are filling up Iowa’s basements.
Beathard was Boy Wonder last year. He was second-team all-Big Ten, won every regular-season start and guided the Hawkeyes to a combined 87 points in their first two games this year. But he’s getting killed. Iowa already has given up 14 sacks this year, which is on pace to exceed last year’s total of 30 by around four. Last year’s total was the most since 2007.
The Wildcats smashed Beathard for six sacks on Saturday, including four by backup defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo. Beathard holds the ball too long because his receivers struggle to get open. Iowa almost has a cavalier attitude on protecting Beathard, leaving each lineman one-on-one with his opponent. It appears chipping with a tight end might help. Of course, I’m not a football coach, so what do I know.
Then there’s the predictable play calling. Iowa faced seven third-down situations in the second half, and all but one were passes. The only run was on third-and-1, and it was a sneak. The others included four third-and-6s, a third-and-3 and a third-and-4. Beathard was sacked three times and threw an interception. Only one third-down pass led to a first down.
Iowa right now is stuck in neutral, which is its fans’ biggest fear. It’s not good, it’s not bad, but it’s mediocre. The program lived there from 2010 through 2014 before hitting the lottery last season. When you have no expectations, mediocrity is a fine residence. But when you and your fans demand an encore and instead get a stagnant relapse, the season becomes insufferable.
And that’s when insecurity settles in all over again.