IOWA CITY, Iowa — Kirk Ferentz traditionally avoids turning rivalry games into season-makers.
The longtime Iowa coach offers no rhetoric about hate weeks, which seem to occur every-other game for the Hawkeyes. Iowa usually escapes the emotional pratfalls that follow a rivalry defeat because the message stays the same, regardless of the opponent.
But that doesn’t mean Ferentz doesn’t recognize the value of such games. Ferentz allows his football personnel to ramp up the sizzle, from airing enemy fight songs in the locker room to playing hype videos on the bus. Symbols of victory adorn the football complex’s front foyer with Floyd of Rosedale usually the first traveling trophy in sight.
Floyd, the 98-pound bronze pig for which Iowa (3-2, 1-1 Big Ten) and Minnesota (3-1, 0-1 Big Ten) play annually, now is out of sight from the general public until Saturday afternoon. In the popular pig’s absence is a sense of urgency, felt and described by Iowa’s players and coaches. To contend for a second straight Big Ten West Division title, the players know how much rides on this game against their oldest rival.
“Every game is a must-win game, but with this game our backs are against the wall,” Iowa running back Akrum Wadley said. “We’ve got to come out swinging.
“We do need to win in order for us to accomplish our goals we set in the preseason. Winning this game is big, not only for our record, but one of our goals is to keep all of our trophies in the building.”
Both Wadley and cornerback Desmond King tap-danced around phrases like “must-win” in their comments. But their intensity was as real Tuesday as their frustration was Saturday after a loss to Northwestern.
Few people expected the Hawkeyes to open the season 3-2, especially those in the building. From the offensive line struggling to protect quarterback C.J. Beathard (14 sacks) to a defense that can’t stop the run (182.8 yards allowed per game), the concerns go beyond the win-loss record. There are legitimate issues opponents can exploit, and better teams are on the horizon, not in the rearview mirror.
Those themes permeated every interview. Reporters asked offensive linemen about keeping Beathard upright. Questions peppered skilled offensive players about keeping drives alive. Every defensive player heard more than they cared to share about run defense.
“We put that out on the field, we put that on television, we put that on tape and we’ve got to own it,” Iowa guard Boone Myers said. “That’s us. It’s bitter, but at the same time, we’ve got to own it.”
Ferentz didn’t shy from any questions, which ranged from proper defensive technique — it’s not happening consistently enough — to lack of rhythm in the passing game (he brought that up himself). There were gray areas he avoided, like starting lineup, but he admitted he wasn’t ruling out any changes, either.
The directness in Ferentz’s voice throughout the 30-minute news conference underscored the importance of Saturday’s game. This week’s practices aren’t just about reaching goals; they are about reaching a proper trajectory. Iowa rarely looks like a contender in September, but with growth, strides are evident by November. The regular season will be half over late Saturday afternoon, but both sides of the ball still appear in mid-August form.
“I think our players are invested, giving good effort,” Ferentz said. “Right now we’re just not playing well enough at times, and those are the things that we have to really try to address. The most important things to be focused on right now are making the makeable-type plays, playing clean football and then trying to eliminate the self-inflicted wounds. They’ve been hurtful to our cause, certainly.”
As much as the result matters, so does keeping the pig. Iowa won all four trophy games (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa State) last year after losing all four in 2014. The Hawkeyes’ 51-14 loss at Minnesota in 2014 sticks out to King, and retaining Floyd of Rosedale is the one goal Iowa can accomplish this week. Ferentz won’t make it a focal point, but it is a motivating factor.
“I will say the most significant thing is this trophy that we’re playing (for),” King said. “Having that feeling two years ago up there in Minneapolis, just losing our trophy, that wasn’t a good feeling at all.
“This year, we’re going to try to change that.”