The Iowa football team’s performance on Saturday probably wasn’t enough to erase doubt or suspicion that something is wrong with the Hawkeyes, but it was a step forward.
Any victory is a step forward, even if the opponent is lowly Rutgers without its best player for the entire second half.
Iowa took advantage of that circumstance on Saturday and escaped with a 14-7 victory over Rutgers in the Big Ten opener in New Brunswick, N.J.
The Iowa players didn’t let the North Dakota State loss from a week ago turn into two losses, but nothing came easy for the Hawkeyes on Saturday.
The Scarlets Knight nearly pulled off the upset despite being without star receiver and return specialist Janarion Grant for the entire second half.
Grant was injured with 4 minutes 35 seconds remaining in the second quarter on a play in which he turned a screen pass into an electrifying 76-yard gain. He was injured when Iowa defensive back Desmond King stepped on Grant’s lower right leg while attempting to strip the ball and tackle him.
Rutgers compensated for Grant’s absence by matching Iowa with 193 rushing yards.
So from a perception point standpoint, Iowa didn’t gain much or any traction with Saturday’s narrow victory.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz couldn’t care less about perception, though.
“I think everybody, at least on our football team, understands any time we compete it’s going to be a challenge and it certainly was today,’ Ferentz said on his post-game radio show. “Rutgers played hard and played a good game.
“So this thing didn’t come easy, but the positive is we got our third win and our first Big Ten win, our first road win. We’ve got a lot things we’ve got to get better at and that’s got to be the focus as we move forward right now.”
Everybody on the team might understand that, but some fans and members of the media probably don’t see it that way.
They want to know why Iowa failed to put away a team that is expected to be a Big Ten bottom feeder this season.
They want to know why the passing attack sputtered for the second consecutive game as C.J. Beathard completed 12-of-23 attempts for 162 yards and one touchdown.
They want to know why the offensive line is struggling to protect Beathard, who was sacked twice on Saturday and pressured throughout the game. Beathard ran 10 times for 37 yards, but that wasn’t likely by design, but rather to avoid being sacked.
They want to why Iowa’s performance was sloppy for a second consecutive game as the Hawkeyes committed seven penalties for 57 yards on Saturday.
Ferentz also would like to know the answer for his team’s sloppiness, although, he thinks Iowa only committed six penalties against Rutgers.
Ferentz didn’t agree with the chop-block call on junior right tackle Ike Boettger that erased a 75-yard touchdown run by LeShun Daniels early in the third quarter.
“That was one that I thought was a perfectly legal block when I saw on the replay up there,’ Ferentz said. “But that’s the way it goes. They called it and we’ve got to play it.
“But the other six, nothing good about any of them. We’ve got to clean that up.”
Saturday marked the second consecutive game in which Daniels had a long run wiped out by a penalty.
This one didn’t sting as much, though, because Iowa prevailed.
The Hawkeyes did just enough to avoid what would have been perceived as a horrible loss.
And for now, that is all that should matter.
Iowa closed both halves with a surge on Saturday.
The Hawkeyes drove 99 yards for a touchdown late in the first half and then forced a turnover and scored the game-winning touchdown on a 26-yard run by Akrum Wadley in the fourth quarter.
“The best thing we did today, and I told the team, was just how we played at the end of both halves,” Ferentz said. “We came alive. We responded to the situations and did a really good job and that’s encouraging.
“We’ve got more to give. We can coach better. We can play better. And we’re going to need to because we’ve got another tough game next week.”
Ferentz was referring to next Saturday’s homecoming game against Northwestern at Kinnick Stadium. The series has shown over the years that just about anything can happen regardless of time, place or circumstance.
This season hasn’t lived up to the lofty expectations so far, but it hardly has been a disaster, either. A loss to Rutgers would have been flirting with disaster, but crisis avoided.
The Iowa defense has to fix whatever is allowing opponents to run up the middle because it’ll face rushing attacks that are far more dangerous than what Rutgers threw at them on Saturday.
“We just got to clean some stuff up,” said sophomore free safety Brandon Snyder. “We’ve got to get back on the tape and correct that and figure out what’s going on.
“We’ll be better. We’ll get back to it and correct that and try to eliminate that.”
Snyder got better on Saturday compared to the previous week when he struggled during the 23-21 loss to North Dakota State. He forced a fumble against Rutgers that set the stage for Iowa’s game-winning drive in the fourth quarter.
“He’s probably illustrative of our football team,” Ferentz said of Snyder. “There are a lot of things he can do a lot better and will get better.”
If you really think about it, this is more like life under Ferentz compared to last season when Iowa won all 12 regular-season games.
Iowa has been largely successful under Ferentz, but rarely has it come easy. His teams are always a work in progress with some luckier than others.
Teams make some of their luck, but some luck is also beyond a team’s control. Iowa benefited in both regards last season with the ball so often bouncing its way.
This season has a different feel to it, a more uneasy feeling. It seems likely that some fans who predicted 10-2 or 9-3 as the absolute worst records for Iowa this season are now considering 8-4 and 7-5 as possibilities.
The current Iowa team needs to worry about the things it can control, namely its execution and preparation.
The offensive line is now healthy with the return of junior guard Sean Welsh and sophomore center James Daniels, but hardly a finished product.
Saturday’s game could have been a disaster and the start of a meltdown. Instead, though, it was just a close call in which Iowa took a step forward.
It wasn’t pretty, but Ferentz isn’t being paid over the next decade for style points.