By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Despite the risk of sounding like Kevin Bacon’s character in National Lampoon’s classic comedy, “Animal House,” now is not the time for Iowa football fans to panic.
You don’t necessarily have to remain calm as Bacon implored parade watchers to do in Animal House before being trampled and flattened like a pancake as all hell broke loose near the end of the movie.
Just don’t over-react to something that would be easy to over-react to.
There is no way to sugar-coat the loss of both starting offensive tackles and a starting defensive tackle to one-game suspensions, or the fact that Iowa has been rocked by a recent wave of player attrition.
But this is when you have to trust the culture under head coach Kirk Ferentz and his process for developing players and for dealing with adversity.
Iowa’s next-man-in philosophy will be severely tested in the Sept. 1 season opener against Northern Illinois, which features a dynamic force in junior defensive end Sutton Smith. He led the nation last season in sacks (14) tackles for loss (29 ½) and quarterback pressures (73).
The Iowa offensive line would’ve had its hands full with or without starting tackles Tristan Wirfs and Alaric Jackson.
But even without three starters and a reserve defensive tackle, shouldn't an Iowa team that looks respectable on paper still have enough firepower to defeat a Northern Illinois squad that finished 8-5 last season?
The series is more competitive than it used to be, with Northern Illinois having won the most recent matchup 30-27 in 2013 at Kinnick Stadium, and with each of the past four games decided by 13 or fewer points.
But it still is a Big Ten team playing a team from the Mid-American Conference at home. Iowa has lost under those circumstances four times under Ferentz, so, of course, it's possible that a fifth loss could happen.
It shouldn't though, even without four players, including three starters.
Iowa hasn't won eight of nine games against Northern Illinois by accident, but rather with better talent and more depth.
And even if Iowa should lose, it still wouldn’t be time to panic because we will have been through this kind of chaos and controversy before under Ferentz, multiple times for that matter.
The response to Wednesday’s breaking news that Jackson and defensive tackle Cedrick Lattimore both would be suspended for the season opener for violating team policy and rules was predictably that of disappointment and concern.
Judging from my Twitter timeline, fans want to know what the hell is going on with the Iowa football team?
My answer is simple; the same stuff that has being going on for decades.
I’m not trying to be dismissive or make excuses for the players and coaches, but these kinds of imperfections go with the territory.
You do what you can to prevent them from happening, but when they do happen, you deal with each case accordingly.
I think most Iowa fans would agree that Ferentz has built a healthy and fair culture in which players are held accountable.
And that’s what is happening now.
Sophomore offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs only has himself to blame for driving while intoxicated, and the same for junior defensive tackle Brady Reiff for being drunk in public. Alcohol is often what leads to trouble as Wirfs and Reiff both recently learned the hard way after being arrested.
And now they both must suffer the consequences, which includes being suspended for the season opener.
As for Jackson and Lattimore, their situation is different in that it doesn’t involve the law.
According to Iowa’s release, they were given guidelines and milestones to meet over the past 10 weeks, but apparently fell short.
“As a coach one of the most important decisions is to hold student-athletes accountable,” said Ferentz. “It is painful for the players and the team to impose a suspension, but we have high standards and there is an expectation all players abide by our rules.”
This will be the second game in a row that Jackson will have missed due to a suspension. The Detroit native was also suspended for Iowa’s 27-20 victory over Boston College in the 2017 Pinstripe Bowl for violating an undisclosed team policy.
It seems likely that this latest suspension is related to the first suspension.
Whatever the case, Jackson is learning the hard way by missing games that being an Iowa football player carries with it a massive responsibility.
Other players have learned that same lesson before him, and others will learn it after him.
This current wave of trouble was bound to happen sooner or later because this stuff is cyclical.
Ferentz dealt with it early in his time at Iowa, midway through and now again.
Every program is susceptible to player attrition and legal woes. It's how each program deals with those problems that separates one from another.
Just because there has been a recent string of incidents doesn't mean the Iowa players are out of control or that Ferentz is losing touch with his players. It just means that Ferentz has to enforce discipline and make his players accountable.
The recent wave of attrition is nothing new, either. Most of the players who have left the program did so because they were buried on the depth chart. That often happens in a developmental program like Iowa where the coaches sometimes will take chances on recruits.
It's a great story when an unheralded recruit exceeds expectations, but when that doesn't happen, the recruit sometimes will leave for a more suitable opportunity.
The hope is that Jackson, a third-year sophomore, gets the message because his leash will almost certainly be shorter after two suspensions.
Jackson has to remind himself about all the good things he has in his life right now and the opportunities that come with it. What happens in the next two or three years will go a long way in shaping Jackson’s future.
It’s now up to Jackson to seize the opportunity while it still is available.