By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Just two weeks ago, the Iowa football team was on a roll and being compared to some of Kirk Ferentz’s best teams, including the 2002 squad that won 11 games and finished undefeated in the Big Ten
Those comparisons are no longer being made after back-to-back losses to Penn State and Purdue by a combined eight points on the road.
The current Iowa team is now showing signs of being similar to the 2014 and 2010 Iowa teams, both of which unraveled down the stretch.
But it’s still too early to make those comparisons just like it was too early to anoint the current team by comparing it to teams that already had achieved great success.
We’re always so quick to make comparisons, both good and bad, despite every team being different.
The current Iowa team, as quarterback Nate Stanley pointed out after Saturday's 38-36 loss at Purdue, still could win 10 games and that’s how the players have to think at this stage.
The Iowa players have to stay focused and driven to keep this season from collapsing.
Iowa has three games remaining against Northwestern, Illinois and Nebraska with Illinois being the only road game.
It’s reasonable to think that Iowa could win all three games, and that would set up the chance to win at least 10 games for the sixth time under Kirk Ferentz with a victory in a bowl game.
Some of your probably think it’s absurd to even consider such a positive scenario under the current circumstances because that’s what losing does. It chips away at your confidence and faith and makes you assume the worst will happen.
Losing makes you a prisoner of the moment, just like winning does.
It was silly and premature to compare the current Iowa team to the best teams under Ferentz with so much of the season still remaining.
But it’s also premature to dismiss the current team as another colossal failure under Ferentz with one-third of the conference schedule still remaining.
The 2018 season will be remembered for what it could have been if Iowa finishes with nine or 10 victories.
But that sure beats the alternative of struggling down the stretch and being lumped with Ferentz’s most disappointing teams.
The current team, with records of 6-3 overall and 3-3 in the Big Ten, still has a chance to be remembered as something positive. However, the chance to be truly special ended when Purdue kicker Spencer Evans made a game-winning 25-yard field goal on Saturday.
For those who assumed that Iowa was on the verge of being special just two weeks ago, losing back-to-back games with the division title on the line is hard to take.
Iowa hasn’t won a Big Ten title since 2004 and has won the Big Ten West Division just once in 2015.
Most of the players on Iowa’s last Big Ten championship team are now in their mid-30s with their playing days long behind them.
Iowa’s situation looks good compared to teams like Indiana and Minnesota that haven’t sniffed a conference title in nearly a half century.
But it’s still a rare occurrence for Iowa to win a Big Ten title.
As great as the past 40 seasons have been under Ferentz, and under his predecessor Hayden Fry, only five Big Ten titles have been won by Iowa during that time.
This season will almost certainly mark the 35th time in the last 40 years that Iowa has failed to achieve the goal of winning a conference title.
What fans are experiencing now as part of the the devastation from losing is more the rule than the exception at Iowa.
That’s why some fans, and some in the media, are so quick and eager to make comparisons when Iowa shows early signs of being special because the truly special seasons are few and far between.
The current Iowa team still is hard to understand because it has shown that it can win and lose in different ways.
Iowa won a 13-3 defensive struggle against Iowa State and lost an offensive shootout against Purdue in which both teams combined to score 74 points.
Purdue quarterback David Blough shredded the Iowa defense for 333 passing yards and four touchdowns.
“We knew coming in they had a really solid quarterback and some really explosive guys on the outside,” said Iowa free safety Jake Gervase. “But obviously, it hurts giving up 38 points. We didn’t play our best game. I feel bad for the offense. I thought they played real well. They put up a lot of points and didn’t have any turnovers.
“So that falls on us. It falls on the whole defense. It falls on the secondary in particular giving up those explosive plays. And that falls on me. I’m accountable for it. I’m the senior guy in that room. We’ve just got to do a better job of executing our game plan.”
The Purdue loss felt different than Iowa’s previous two losses to Wisconsin and Penn State, but not just because Ferentz called out the officiating due to some questionable calls that went against Iowa, especially in the critical late moments of the game.
It felt different because Iowa’s chance to do something special this season ended when Evans’ kick cleared the uprights with 8 seconds remaining.
Barring a miracle, this season will mark the 18th time in 20 seasons under Ferentz that Iowa will have failed to win a conference title.
"Two things, simple, now we're building for the next one if we are out, and we'll find out," Ferentz said of winning the West Division. "It's a lot of football to be played.
"And we talk about championship-level performance, what we're trying to do is be the best that we can be, and if it works out, that's great. It's tough to get there as you know. But if this door shuts, then we're working on the next one and our seniors will help us get to the next step. And then we've still got three ball gams left. We've got to find a way to win next week. That's first and foremost. If we continue to play good football and win games, that's what it's all about."
It's also about winning Big Ten championships, but as we're being reminded with this up-and-down season, that's not easy to do.