IOWA CITY, Iowa — Plenty went wrong with Iowa in a bad 38-31 loss to Northwestern, but that’s not the problem.
Nothing is going to change with this 3-2 Hawkeye team until they learn how to right things. The problem: There is no indication Iowa is in position to solve it, yet.
“We just got to figure out what we are not doing well enough right now,” Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard said. “There is a fine line between winning and losing games. We are on the losing side and we got to figure it out and watch the film and correct things.”
Listen to Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. He’ll say, without being asked, that the Hawkeyes must improve on third down and with the interior run defense.
It’s true, but the Hawkeyes are coming across like a baby boomer staring at a blinking red light on a router. Something is wrong, but they don’t know what it takes to make it go away.
Listen to the players. For the second time in three weeks they struggled to grasp why Iowa had lost. Beathard couldn’t pinpoint it. Cornerback Desmond King’s nearly five-minute press conference almost came off as a therapy session.
It wasn’t preparation. It wasn’t urgency. It was execution, but getting to the root of the problem is evading Iowa.
“We gave up a lot of big plays on the back end,” King said. “It’s not what we were looking for. They really outcoached us a little bit in the passing game.”
King would clarify his remarks. He would say “outcoached” was the wrong word. In his defense, it’s hard to find the right word when the players don’t appear to know what they should be.
Ferentz would probably agree part of this is on the coaching staff to get the players in a position to recognize it.
“We’re trying to shape our identity,” Ferentz said.
This Iowa team isn’t playing like a Ferentz-led team, let alone like the one that won 12 straight games to start last season.
The symptoms are the same from September. The pass blocking is subpar. Self-inflicted wounds are stopping drives. Receivers aren’t always getting separation. The interior run defense is leaking worse than the Titanic.
Iowa football games are almost turning into a repeat. It’s nearly the same 60 minutes over and over. Only it’s not “Groundhog Day.” It’s a TV pilot a network isn’t sure will work.
“There is no reason to point at any spot right now because we are not playing well enough at any aspect of our game, and we got to get better,” Beathard said. “We have to get better at every part of our game.”
The state of Iowa football after playing Northwestern is jarring. The Wildcats entered Kinnick Stadium with two problems. They couldn’t move the football and they couldn’t stop opponents from moving the football.
Iowa let the worst Big Ten rushing team gain 198 yards. Northwestern matched its entire sack total for the year on Saturday with six. A team that needed a GPS device to find the end zone in September scored 21 points, gaining 232 yards on three successive second-half drives to essentially win the game.
“We just need to play with some more consistency,” Iowa wide receiver Riley McCarron said. “There are flashes of us doing well, both sides of the ball, special teams, but we need to start doing it every drive, not every other or every third drive.”
There were good things: Three first-half series went, in order, for an Iowa touchdown, Northwestern turnover and Iowa touchdown – but then the good disappeared.
The negative outweighed the positive and a new issue popped up. The Hawkeyes didn’t control their emotions well.
It started with what Beathard thought was a face mask penalty on a third down sack. On Northwestern’s next offensive play, linebacker Josey Jewell was called for a face mask. Defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson followed with a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for jawing at the refs. So a 1-yard run resulted in 30 yards of penalties.
“Can’t let one thing affect the whole game,” King said. “That’s our mindset. You can’t let one personal foul to affect the next play and that’s what we did.”
The margin of victory isn’t big for this team. Iowa won’t win unless it all comes together. It certainly didn’t against the Wildcats.
“I know that we didn’t play our best,” King said. “I know that, for sure. I know the ability we have and the ability we can play with and today was not our day, and we are going to correct those things.”
The question is when because, until the Hawkeyes get some certainty on what they need to do, the uncertainty will stick around.