By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – A championship-caliber team finds a way to win close games, so it’s probably time to accept that the Iowa football team doesn’t deserve that title.
Northwestern handed Iowa its third consecutive loss with a 14-10 victory on Saturday before an announced attendance of 66,493 at Kinnick Stadium.
The Wildcats (6-4, 6-1) clinched their first Big Ten West Division title with the victory, while Iowa fell to 6-4 overall and 3-4 in the conference with two games left against Illinois and Nebraska.
Iowa lost two fumbles late in the fourth quarter and was held to just 64 rushing yards on 22 carries while losing to Northwestern for the third time in a row and for the ninth time in the last 14 games.
"The difference of the game was our ability to create some turnovers down the stretch," said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald.
Iowa now faces the daunting task of trying to keep a once-promising season from unraveling, if it hasn’t already.
“We’re kind of on a rough stretch these last three weeks, but I think this is a tough team and we’ve got good leadership and a lot of guys giving great effort,” said Iowa strong safety Jake Gervase. “We’re going to let this loss sting a little bit.
“But like I said, we’re going to keep our heads up and move on and keep trying to improve and finish the season strong.”
The players have basically said the same thing about staying the course and trying to finish strong after each of the past three losses.
But what are they supposed to say under very difficult circumstances?
The season is spiraling in the wrong direction and the last thing you want is for the players to make excuses or to point fingers.
They still seem unified and engaged, but the team just isn’t as good as many expected after Iowa had won six of its first seven games.
Iowa’s rushing attack has sputtered for much of the season and that’s where the problems usually start on offense because it has a domino effect. Iowa is 0-12 in games where it didn't rush for at least 100 yards since the start of 2015 season.
Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley is much better when he has the luxury of using play action, but it’s hard to use play action when you struggle to sustain a rushing attack.
Northwestern, on the other hand, rushed for 184 yards on 46 carries in Saturday’s game, and did so without fumbling. The Wildcats rushed for 150 yards in the second half alone, while Iowa was held to just 17 rushing yards in the second half.
Northwestern entered Saturday's game ranked last in the Big Ten in rushing, averaging just 93 yards per game. The Wildcats nearly doubled that total on Saturday against an Iowa defense that was allowing just 86.2 rushing yards per game.
Iowa intercepted two passes thrown by Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson, but the inability to sustain a rushing attack made it hard for the Hawkeyes to capitalize on the good field position.
“I think the biggest story in the game is we couldn’t run the ball, especially in the second half and they did,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. “They made it tough on us in every segment. I know we outgained them yardage wise, but we never really got into a rhythm outside of the one big play to Smith-Marsette. We never really got into a rhythm offensively.
“So I think our inefficiency on third-down and our inability to run was probably the biggest difference.”
The play to which Ferentz referred was a 36-yard pass to receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette that gave Iowa a first down at the Northwestern 19-yard line in the third quarter. However, the drive stalled and Iowa came away with no points when Miguel Recinos missed a 38-yard field goal.
Junior tight end Noah Fant was held to just one catch for zero yards, and he also spent much of Saturday’s game watching from the sideline.
Ferentz was asked after Saturday’s game why Fant wasn’t on the field more. Ferentz responded by saying that Iowa only uses one tight end on certain formations, and they chose to use T.J. Hockenson over Fant on Saturday.
That’s hard for some Iowa fans, and for some in the media, to understand because Fant has 17 touchdown catches since the start of last season.
“If you’ve got 11 personnel, you can only have one tight end out there and we’ve got two pretty good tight ends,” Ferentz said. “So T.J. would have been the guy of choice at that point.”
Ferentz was pressed on the issue, but he didn’t budge.
“I think we try and feature the guys that are doing the best, whether it’s T.J., Noah, our receivers,” Ferentz said. “We’re calling the game as we call the game and practice the situations we’re practicing.”
That might be the case, but to have a player as established as Fant on the bench in crucial situations is peculiar to say the least. It makes you wonder if there is something going on behind the scene that is impacting Fant’s playing time.
But with or without Fant on the field, Iowa’s rushing attack still leaves much to be desired, and that’s the biggest reason this team can’t win close games.
So much of Iowa’s identity on offense is built around its running game.
The offense was reduced to being one-dimensional on Saturday as Stanley attempted 41 passes. He completed 27 of them for 269 yards and one touchdown, but it was hard to sustain drives without a productive running game.
Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz also seems to have used a page or two from former offensive coordinator Greg Davis' play book, considering how many horizontal passes that Stanley threw on Saturday. Iowa attempted lots of horizontal passes under Davis, who served as offensive coordinator from 2012 to 2016, with mixed results.
Iowa isn't built to be one dimensional on offense, especially when the one dimension is passing. When the running game breaks down, the offensive machine breaks down as we saw on Saturday.
Kirk Ferentz was asked after Saturday’s game where his team goes after suffering three consecutive losses.
“Back to work,” Ferentz said. “Same place we went last week. “There’s no panacea, there’s no magic formula. It’s a matter of we have to stay together, keep working hard and we have to find a way to improve and improve quicker.
“That’s the next thing.”
What Iowa needs to do is fix its running game ASAP before this season turns into a total disaster. Iowa’s inability to sustain a rushing attack is nothing new under Ferentz. The Hawkeyes entered Saturday's game ranked ninth in the conference in rushing with a 156.8 average.
Next Saturday’s game at defensively challenged Illinois could provide a temporary fix to the running game.
But Iowa has to show that it can sustain a rushing attack against quality opponents because that is ultimately what it'll take to win a conference title.
The Hawkeyes failed to do that against Northwestern and paid a familiar price.