IOWA CITY, Iowa — Three days and hopefully twice as many showers later, Iowa’s football players approached their weekly media session tepidly with a sense of accountability.
They knew the questions would be probing and uncomfortable. Maybe even aggravating. But after a calendar year of success, from an unbeaten 2015 regular season to a pair of easy victories to start this season, Iowa felt the backfist of defeat for the first time this season. Making it less palatable — especially to the fan base — was the 23-21 loss came to FCS school North Dakota State.
Each of the players decompressed in his own way. Quarterback C.J. Beathard put the loss in context more quickly than his teammates, if only because his 6-year-old sister Tatum gave him some perspective.
“I come off the field to see my family. They’re waiting for me at the end. I’m all down, we’re down, we just lost,” Beathard said. “My sister, she’s 6, she calls me Goo-Goo. She said, ‘Goo-Goo, Goo-Goo, guess what?’ I’m, ‘What, what Tatum?’ She’s like, ‘I got three pictures with Herky today!’ ”
Beathard chuckles as he retells the story.
“She has no idea what happened,” he added. “It’s innocent moments like that that make you realize that the world’s going to keep spinning and life goes on. At the end of the day we’ve got an entire season ahead of us, and we’ve just got to use that to motivate us.”
But the hurt was evident with every player, including Beathard. The Hawkeyes fell from No. 11 to No. 25 in the USA Today Coaches Poll. They dropped completely out of the Associated Press Poll. Even if they run the Big Ten table and win the league championship, their resume will wear the North Dakota State loss like a scarlet letter.
If Iowa enters another playoff conversation, that loss will be shackled to their record like a corpse. No matter that North Dakota State could beat a minimum two-thirds of Power 5 teams or that other teams have rebounded from FCS defeats. This one will leave a mark, and Iowa will suffer from it.
But it also provides opportunity. Instead of swimming upstream through the torrent of way-too-bleeping-early playoff discussions, Iowa now can return to national anonymity and focus on its issues. And there are plenty. The Hawkeyes can worry about improving and competing against their Big Ten brethren. A second consecutive unbeaten regular season is off the table but so is the insane pressure that accompanies it.
Yet, looking back at Saturday’s result is vital going forward. The players and coaches need to assess what happened in their last-second loss. That’s what middle linebacker Josey Jewell did in the aftermath.
Nobody is more intense than Jewell, who says he’s “not much of an outgoing guy” and prefers his home to a weekend night out in Iowa City. Instead of blowing off steam after the game, Jewell rewatched the game.
“I couldn’t go without it,” he said. “I was sitting in my room, one, to try to make myself better and see what we did wrong and try to improve it. It was bugging me.”
The same goes for coach Kirk Ferentz, who typically waits until Sunday to go through video. Like Jewell, he went through it much earlier than usual.
“We blew a great opportunity from a personal standpoint,” Ferentz said. “You’ve got an 11 o’clock kickoff, you’re at home, you’ve got a chance to enjoy that nice long afternoon/evening, and quite frankly you don’t feel like doing anything, and I never feel like doing anything anyway, but I didn’t feel like doing anything with anybody around on Saturday.”
Like many football coaches, Ferentz has a 24-hour rule for his team to celebrate or sulk after a game’s result. But a loss like that can linger. It took away Iowa’s highest aspirations, one which the Hawkeyes were 27 seconds from accomplishing last December. They have to churn the disappointment into motivation, which is what offensive tackle Ike Boettger said is the sole focus at this point.
“For me personally, it’s going to take a little longer than maybe even this week,” Boettger said. “You’ve got to try to move on, but it’s still going to sting for a while. I don’t think anybody is 24 hours and done with it, a game like that. But that’s what we’re working towards, just getting on to the next game. That’s always going to be in the back of your head, for me at least.”