By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – For just the third time, the Iowa football team is 5-0 under Kirk Ferentz.
The previous two times it happened in 2009 and 2015, Iowa would go on to finish 11-2 and 12-2 in those seasons, respectively.
Iowa also started 5-0 under previous head coach Hayden Fry just three times from 1979 to 1998.
So that’s only six 5-0 starts over 43 seasons.
To be almost at the midway point of the regular season without losing is impressive regardless of what some say about Iowa’s opponents.
That seems to be the newest criticism about Iowa; it hasn’t defeated any good opponents.
Indiana and Iowa State both have underachieved, while Maryland is, well, Maryland, fragile, emotional and self-destructive as evidenced by Friday’s 51-14 loss to Iowa.
It seems there always is a cynical narrative when Iowa flirts with elite status, and it usually is the schedule.
Indiana and Iowa State have underachieved to this point, but Iowa is largely responsible for that.
Maryland self-destructed with seven turnovers, but Iowa was a big reason for that.
Former Michigan defensive back Charles Woodson, who won the 1997 Heisman Trophy before enjoying a long and distinguished NFL career, ranks Iowa as the fourth best team in the Big Ten behind Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan. Woodson announced his rankings Saturday morning on the Big Noon Kickoff show on Fox Sports.
Former Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops, who played defensive back at Iowa and is now part of the Big Noon Kickoff lineup, questioned Woodson’s rankings, saying that he must have done them before Iowa’s drubbing of Maryland.
Whatever the case, it just shows that Iowa has its share of critics, doubters and naysayers, and it’s probably due largely to being a developmental program.
It’s easy to list the Big Ten’s three traditional blue blood programs when all three are playing well, or in Ohio State’s case, playing well enough to still get benefit of the doubt.
Iowa doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt with most outsiders, or so it seems.
But really, who cares?
Iowa controls its own destiny, and that’s all that matters.
The gap between Ohio State and the rest of the Big Ten, which has been steady for much of the past decade, doesn’t seem nearly as wide this season. Ohio State has issues on defense, and issues with some player discontent.
But on the other hand, Ohio State is also the most talented team in the conference.
Nobody would ever say that about Iowa.
But again, who cares?
Iowa has a winning formula that has withstood every challenge so far, and now comes the biggest challenge against fourth-ranked Penn State next Saturday at what will be a sold out Kinnick Stadium.
This is fun, thinking of the possibilities for this Iowa team, perhaps another Rose Bowl opportunity, or dare we go this far, a spot in the playoff for the first time.
It would be foolish and counter-productive for the Iowa players to obsess over the possibilities, and it seems highly unlikely that they are paying any attention.
You get a sense that this Iowa team is locked into the daily task at hand, that the players are embracing the grind and focused solely on the journey rather than the destination.
The Maryland game supposedly had danger written all over it, and yet, Iowa treated it as a business trip and administered a beat-down.
That doesn’t happen without veteran leadership, which Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz addressed after the game.
“The greater thing about it to me is our senior leadership, our veteran leadership, not just the seniors, but the guys that have played this year and last year, they’re really doing a good job just showing the younger guys, and we’ve got a lot of younger guys on our team, how to act and how to do things and that’s all week long, not just on game day,” Ferentz said.
One thing that is uncertain at this point is how Iowa will respond to adversity. The closest there has been to adversity so far this season was trailing Colorado State 14-7 at halftime.
Iowa has also mostly avoided costly turnovers, and serious injuries.
Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras is considered by some the weak link to the offense, and yet, he accounted for five touchdowns and had no turnovers against Maryland, and has won 11 straight games as a starter, which the great Chuck Long never did.
Petras has also thrown just one interception this season.
“I think we being the staff probably look at it a little differently than maybe the rest of the world, but we think he’s been pretty good for us,” Kirk Ferentz said of Petras after the Maryland game. “Two things, the bottom line is to win games. Like it or not, my wife has been saying it for about forty years, that’s what it gets down to.
“And for most, it’s a happiness thing, and it’s also, sometimes, an employment issue. But then beyond it, for the players, that’s how you feel. You feel like hell when you lose, and you feel great when you win. And the bottom line is he finished up six straight last year and now he’s got us here.”
Ferentz went on to say that the coaches really have liked what they’ve seen from Petras from a development standpoint.
“And there’s a lot of things that we see in practice that nobody else gets to see,” Ferentz said. “I don’t think anyone is surprised in our camp about how he played tonight.”
Ferentz also downplayed the rankings, saying they mean nothing right now.
And while he is correct to a point, the rankings do mean something right now. But the only way they would continue to mean something is to keep winning.
There are little things that suggest this team might be special, things like when running back Tyler Goodson raced down a defender on an interception against Colorado State. His hustle didn’t prevent the Rams from scoring a touchdown a few plays later, but it sent a powerful message that still resonated with Kirk Ferentz, almost a week later.
“He made some good plays tonight,” Ferentz said after the Maryland game. “But I’ll circle back, one of the best plays last week was we threw an interception, unfortunately, and his hustle play to go tackle the guy, I think that just kind of illustrates the kind of player he is. So just happy about that.”
It’s always a good sign when one of your best players is also one of your hardest workers. Iowa seems to have a lot of those examples this season.
Being 5-0 is also a good sign, and a rare sign for Hawkeye football.