By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Never has there been an Iowa football team with double-digit wins that has been poked fun of, ridiculed and disrespected more than the current one.
And it’s not just Iowa State and Nebraska fans doing it.
Even some Hawkeye fans have taken shots at the current team, which is preparing to face Michigan as a 10 ½ point underdog in the Big Ten Championship game on Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
Iowa’s deficiencies on offense, coupled with back-to-back losses to Purdue and Wisconsin by scores of 24-7 and 27-7, respectively, has left Hawkeye fans wondering what could’ve been if Iowa had an offense that is just average instead of way below average from a statistical standpoint.
There is also frustration with Iowa having climbed all the way to second in the Associated Press poll, but now has been a non-factor in the playoff hunt for over a month.
“I feel like, especially this week that there’s a target on our back, but I feel there’s been a target on our back this whole year,” said junior center Tyler Linderbaum. “People have been doubting us and saying we’re not good enough, when we were the number two team in the nation.
“Just stuff like that, you’ve got a little chip on your shoulder and you want to prove people wrong. That’s our identity, just prove people wrong and go out there and win football games.”
Iowa senior defensive end Zach VanValkenburg embraces the underdog role and feels that it fits better with the Iowa mentality.
“This is definitely a position that we’re comfortable in,” VanValkenburg said. “It was kind weird at the beginning of the season and going up to get ranked number two and everything. That’s not a position we are comfortable in, I would say. It was a little weird, but now we’re really comfortable being the underdogs.”
The critics and naysayers will say that Iowa backed into the Big Ten West Division title because it wouldn’t have happened without Minnesota defeating Wisconsin last Saturday.
And while it took a Gopher win over the Badgers to make it happen, Iowa also had to defeat Nebraska last Friday, and Iowa also had to finish undefeated in the month of November to win the West.
So, to say that Iowa backed into the West Division title is inaccurate because Iowa was the only team in the West Division to finish with just two losses in conference play.
But as far as the Iowa players are concerned, keep saying it, keep doubting them and keeping making them the underdog because the disrespect is what fuels this team.
“I definitely think that fits who our program is,” Linderbaum said. “The amount of walk-ons we have playing, the amount of two-stars that we have playing, the amount of three-stars that we have playing, we don’t have a lot of four and five stars here.
“So, we’ve been underdogs our whole lives, especially in the recruiting scene.”
Michigan’s roster has multiple players that received a scholarship offer from Iowa, but Iowa only has a handful of players on the current roster that turned down a scholarship from Michigan.
It’s been that way for decades.
Linderbaum was named the Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year on Tuesday and is widely regarded as the top collegiate center in the country.
But the Solon native only had three scholarship offers from Iowa, Iowa State and Minnesota State, according to the Rivals data base.
“Not a lot of coaches from Michigan want Iowa guys on their team, that’s for sure,” Linderbaum said. “And I’m sure a lot of the player there told Iowa no because they were too good for us.
“So having that chip on your shoulder I think is definitely going to be a big thing and we’re going to be excited for the opportunity to play.”
Those who say that Iowa backed into the West Division title seem to be doing the players a favor.
“Obviously, everyone has their opinion,” Linderbaum said. “Not a lot of people are going to predict us to win the game. That’s another underdog mentality thing.
“At the end of the day, we’re going to have to be ready to go and we’re going to have to play our best football to beat a great Michigan team.”
There is no disputing that the Iowa offense leaves much to be desired.
Iowa is ranked last in the Big Ten in total offense, and in the two pivotal games when Iowa needed its offense to rise to the occasion against Purdue and Wisconsin, it failed miserably.
Spencer Petras has struggled at times as the starting quarterback, and Alex Padilla didn’t exactly light it up as his replacement while starting the final three regular-season games when Petras was recovering from a shoulder injury.
And yet, Iowa still finished the regular season with 10 wins, and only four times in 23 seasons under Kirk Ferentz has Iowa won at least 10 regular-season games.
No team should have to defend itself for finishing 10-2 in the regular season.
To help put Iowa’s record in perspective, Iowa State never has won more than nine games in a season and Illinois has won 10 games just once since 1990.
The current Iowa team, despite its deficiencies on offense, has a chance to win a Big Ten title for the first time since 2004, and to tie the program single-season record of 12 wins.
That doesn’t happen by accident, or without all three phases of the team contributing.
Iowa also gets criticized for being in the Big Ten West Division, but three of its seven conference wins were against teams from the East Division, including two that started the season ranked in Indiana and Penn State.
Iowa’s weakness is without question its sputtering and sometimes predicable offense, but that same offense also has produced a 1,000-yard rusher in junior Tyler Goodson and a tight end with 486 receiving yards in junior Sam LaPorta.
That same offense also has two rising stars at receiver in true freshman Keagan Johnson and Arland Bruce.
The running game showed considerable progress in November, thanks primarily to a much better surge at the point of attack by the offensive line.
But three of the four opponents that Iowa faced in November finished with losing records.
So, it’s hard to know how much the running game has improved.
Petras will make his 18th career start on Saturday, and it’s no secret that some Iowa fans would prefer that the more mobile Padilla be behind center, especially against Michigan’s relentless pass rush that has produced 33 sacks and 66 tackles for loss.
Kirk Ferentz and Petras both have squashed any hope of Iowa using both quarterbacks on Saturday, saying it just isn’t the way Iowa operates.
But maybe they’re also trying to mislead Michigan, and there will be some packages designed for Padilla.
It would go against everything Kirk Ferentz stands for, but this is also the Big Ten Championship game in which the opponent is heavily favored, so it’ll probably take some thinking outside of the box, and some risk taking, on offense for Iowa to prevail.
Despite all the negativity and criticism that surrounds this Iowa team, it still hasn’t fully defined itself with two huge games left to play.
Should Iowa defeat Michigan and then win the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1959, that would make it one of the top teams in program history.
Yes, that’s two big obstacles standing in the way, but just to be in this position is a worthy accomplishment.
With so much focus on the offense’s struggles, it’s easy to overlook that Iowa has one of the best special teams in the country, and a top-notch defense.
This team is also resilient in how it bounced back from the back-to-back losses to Purdue and Wisconsin to win the final four regular-season games.
It isn’t always fun to watch on offense, and sometimes the play calling on offense seems too careful and conservative.
But there are hundreds of teams that would love to be in Iowa’s position as a 10-win team, and with two high-profile games still left to play.
Criticism goes with the territory, especially with help from social media, and it’s easy for some to criticize this Iowa team because it has flaws on offense.
But if you look at it fairly, the good far outweighs the bad with this Iowa team, and that’s why Iowa is playing for a Big Ten title on Saturday.
In other words, Iowa didn’t back into anything.