IOWA CITY, Iowa — Mid-fall in eastern Iowa boasts the rich visual splendor and crisp temperatures that coincides with harvest season and football weather.
It’s sunny, 50 degrees and dry on a beautiful Thursday afternoon, just as it was for most of October 2015. But the smiles are tighter this year in Iowa City and the angst more evident in pedestrian malls and on social media.
In 2015, Iowa entered its seventh game unbeaten and ascending. The Hawkeyes came from nowhere, projected by most as midpack in the overlooked Big Ten West Division. Yet the gritty team continued to win, finished 12-0 in regular-season play and reached the Big Ten championship game. Only in a gallant title-game defeat, a 16-13 heartbreaker to Michigan State, were the Hawkeyes’ perceived sins cleansed to a cynical national audience.
But 2015 success quickly developed into 2016 expectations. Iowa’s offense returned second-team all-Big Ten starting quarterback C.J. Beathard, its leading receiver in Matt VandeBerg and best blocker in Sean Welsh. The defense once again was led by consensus All-American cornerback Desmond King and undisputed leader Josey Jewell. If ever Iowa had a team capable of handling expectations, this is the one.
After reaching No. 10 in the USA Today/Coaches poll, the Hawkeyes now sit 4-2 and with a scant three points in the latest Associated Press poll. Their lethargic offense ranks 116th nationally. Beathard has gotten pounded with 15 sacks. The Hawkeyes lost to FCS power North Dakota State and Northwestern at home. They face Purdue on the road this Saturday.
The season is far from over, but disappointment lingers. Iowa stood at the precipice of the College Football Playoff in 2015. Now, barring a surprising finish, it won’t reach a New Year’s Six bowl this year. The West Division title remains a possibility but a stretch.
Iowa joins several championship hopefuls dealing with early-season letdowns. Michigan State, which also appeared in the top 10, is 2-3. Two schools that fought to the final seconds in last year’s title game now must recalibrate their goals for this season. It’s an uncomfortable but annual rite in college football.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz keeps his approach narrow regardless of the situation. He always has. Last year during the team’s bye week he allowed his players to dream big for three days, then return to the task at hand. That’s how he approaches the rest of this season. No designs or aspirations beyond the next practice and the next game.
“Right now, we need to have a winning season first before we can worry about any of that stuff,” Ferentz said. “We’re three rungs away from that still. It’s every step along the way. And I know the best way to get to that. We’ve got to play good this week, and that’s about as far down the road as we look.”
Losses sting players and coaches, but the team’s 24-hour rule keeps them focused. Jewell, one of Iowa’s most intense players in recent memory, buys into Ferentz’s approach.
“There are small goals as you go along: trying to win every trophy game, trying to win every home game, trying to win every game,” said Jewell, a junior three-year starter at inside linebacker. “After you break one of the goals, you just try to re-evaluate, try to get better the next week and try to be able to accomplish as many goals as possible.”
Chuck Long has dealt with the highs and lows of college football, as a player and a coach. Long was the 1985 Heisman Trophy runner-up when he quarterbacked the Hawkeyes to the Big Ten title and Rose Bowl appearance. He served as quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator at Oklahoma when the Sooners won the 2000 BCS championship. He also was there for underachieving seasons as a player, an assistant coach and as a head coach at San Diego State.
Long, now a television analyst at BTN, says accepting and applying a daily process helps teams persevere through success and failure.
“The key is knowing how to reset,” Long said. “In places like Oklahoma, it’s a national championship-or-bust mentality. Those coaches at those places have an even harder time resetting or refocusing and keeping your team on a track to where you have something to play for.
“Good coaches know how to reset goals. ‘Hey, this is still out here for us. We’re still in it for the West. Or we still have a chance at a great bowl game.'”
It’s not always easy. In 1997, when Long was an Iowa assistant under Hayden Fry, the No. 11-ranked Hawkeyes sizzled to a 4-0 start with an average score of 55-12. Then a few key injuries and three losses by a combined eight points sent Iowa from Pasadena hopeful to the Sun Bowl. A potential double-digit winning season ended with a disheartening 7-5 finish.
“That season really affected (Fry),” Long said. “That was the most down that I had seen him after those things started to happen. That was difficult because we had some talent and we had a chance to do some special things and we lost some close ones and fell apart.”
In other years Iowa has regrouped and prospered. In 2004, Iowa lost to Arizona State and Michigan by a combined 50 points. Then the Hawkeyes pushed forward in winning consecutive games against Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State. In the regular-season finale, Iowa beat Wisconsin to grab a share of the Big Ten title.
“The idea is to just play well every week and that’s kind of how I looked at it,” Ferentz said. “I hate to be a party-pooper, but right now that’s really all we can think about is trying to do well this week. We have a lot of work to do, and that’s all we’re focused on right now.”
Dusk approaches near the Iowa campus on the same brilliant mid-October Thursday. The sun may have set on Iowa’s original goals, but it will rise again on Friday. And Saturday. That’s nature’s routine. As for the Hawkeyes, their sun will rise based on their own process.