ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Encouragement to Iowa’s football players came from a surprising source on Saturday morning.
“Beat Nebraska!” Michigan fans shouted at the Hawkeyes before Michigan’s team proceeded to drill its guests.
Those fans weren’t being mean or sarcastic. They meant what they told the Hawkeyes. For Michigan to advance to the Big Ten’s title game, it needs two things to happen. One, it must win at Ohio State this Saturday. But first, Iowa would have to defeat Legends Division co-leader Nebraska Friday at Kinnick Stadium.
But there wasn’t quite the same spirit in the Wolverine fans’ postgame plea to the Hawkeyes. It was a halfhearted “Beat Nebraska,” not “Beat Nebraska!” These people know good college football, and they could plainly see that’s not what Iowa is playing these days.
If Iowa does win Friday, it would give a whole new meaning to phrase “Black Friday” in Nebraska. Because the Hawkeyes haven’t offered any defense in their five-game losing streak.
If you’re going to surrender 490 yards to the likes of Purdue, you sure won’t turn around the next week and play Michigan straight-up. The Hawkeyes are turnstiles, and Michigan went through them, around them, and past them all day for 513 yards in cruising to a 42-17 win.
Here’s how bad this thing has gotten in five weeks: Iowa had a paltry 309 yards and 17 points, and that didn’t seem so bad. The Hawkeyes completed upfield passes for some nice gains, even a touchdown. Which signaled growth.
Iowa can build an offensive line next year, and may not be all that far from having a good one. It has two known-quantities coming back at running back in Mark Weisman and Damon Bullock. Who knows, maybe it has a well-hidden quarterback to ignite the offense.
But what would all that be good for if there aren’t any playmakers on defense, any future high-round NFL guys like the many such players Iowa has featured in the Kirk Ferentz era?
Busted coverages, shoddy tackling, minimal pressure on the quarterback. That’s an unholy trinity for a defense that is beaten-up physically and psychologically.
When Iowa’s defensive backs did stick to Michigan receivers, quarterback Devin Gardner had all the time he needed to thread some long needles. But the secondary and linebackers might as well have been in Ypsilanti with the way they botched coverage on some of Gardner’s other passes.
“They were certainly clicking today,” Ferentz said. “They had it going and we certainly didn’t.”
Barring some sort of weird disturbance in the atmosphere, that will again be the case when the Cornhuskers come to Iowa City.
The first losing regular-season at Iowa since 2000 is here. The first 5-game losing streak since 2000 is here. The quick inclination is to say this is the worst stretch of Hawkeye football under Ferentz since 2000, when the team went 3-9.
I’d go back a little further. It’s worse than 2000 because even though the Hawkeyes went 3-9 that season, they won two of their three last games and had light bulbs popping on in November.
This isn’t as bad as Ferentz’s first team, in 1999, when he took the remnants of Hayden Fry’s program and went 1-11. But even that team played one of the two best Minnesota teams of the last quarter-century tough before falling 25-21 in the season-finale.
No, this year’s Hawkeyes are reminiscent of Fry’s last squad, the ‘98 Hawkeyes who went 3-8. They lost their last five games, and the final four were routs. Although, Iowa did open that season with a 38-0 win over Central Michigan.
Like this year, the ‘98 team was just one season removed from a winning record and a bowl berth. It can come apart so quickly. And it’s usually slower to reassemble.
When the Hawkeyes can again unleash some shut-down, athletic, talented defenders on the rest of the Big Ten, games like Saturday’s will go away. Until then, it’s “Beat Nebraska?”