IOWA CITY, Iowa — So this is it. Four weeks and three Top 25 opponents to wrap up the season. It’s about as easy as trying to climb Mount Midoriyama on “American Ninja Warrior.”
But nothing has been simple for the Hawkeyes this season. It’s fitting then that the toughest stretch of the season, starting with a road game at No. 20 Penn State on Saturday, will dictate the team’s ultimate success.
“Our goal is going to be to win the next four games,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said, “just like our goal last year was to win every game.”
Yes, 2015, the 12-win regular season that was one Michigan State drive away from a College Football Playoff berth.
This 5-3 team still lives in the shadow of what was accomplished in Kinnick Stadium a year ago. The expectations were high. The stars returned. It was going to be like a reunion tour where the band relived its glory days.
It’s just no one realized the impact of losing the rhythm section. The departure of safety Jordan Lomax and linebacker Cole Fisher, along with some early-season injuries, threw things into disarray.
This Iowa team wasn’t what it was before. That didn’t change the lens through which the team is being judged. The music is not the same, but the expectations didn’t change.
Is that fair? Not as we enter November, but it can be hard to move past preseason predictions. This team doesn’t play at the level most figured it would back in August. It’s not what those that bleed black and gold want to hear, but that’s the truth. The Matt VandeBerg injury changed the dynamic of the team.
The Hawkeyes can’t go outscore opponents. They must grind their way to points with the ground game. Quarterback C.J. Beathard not being the same playmaker as a year ago doesn’t help things either.
The defense solved its most glaring problem in stopping the run. It’s why the formula Iowa settled upon for winning games starts with leaning on linebacker Josey Jewell and cornerback Desmond King while trying to coax a couple of touchdowns out of the offense.
So how should this team be judged? It’s far from perfect, but it’s not bad. There are limitations, especially in the passing game, that Iowa might not be able to overcome against quality competition — with the loss to No. 8 Wisconsin as Exhibit A. There are more teams in the Wisconsin-realm of the Big Ten than not left.
Iowa’s remaining schedule
|Nov. 5||@ No. 20 Penn State|
|Nov. 12||vs. No. 2 Michigan|
|Nov. 19||@ Illinois|
|Nov. 25||vs. No. 9 Nebraska|
One win, likely against the only unranked team left, and just scraping by to make a bowl game won’t be enough. Two wins and a seven victory season would probably have the feel of this is just about right.
Three wins, including a couple of Top 25 victories along the way, would be a Top 40 chart topper. It might not feel that way in parts of the fandom, but it would be, even if it’s not an easy task to achieve.
One of the final questions for Ferentz during his bye week press conference was how far Iowa has fallen.
“It’s a fine line,” Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz said last Wednesday. “I typically believe that. Although to me the biggest single step we took three weeks ago was playing a little better defense.”
Ferentz didn’t want to directly attack the answer, but it’s not the first time he’s said he’s seen improvement.
Here’s the thing: Now is the time for Iowa to prove it. It’s the only way for the season to be considered a hit.