To paraphrase one of my favorite comic strips, the underrated Jim’s Journal:
I went to the Iowa-Illinois game Saturday. It was OK.
It seems churlish to call a 45-16 victory over a border rival underwhelming, but there it is. All-in-all, it was one of those days where nothing was terrible but nothing was particularly great, either.
The weather was spotty, with rain dampening the tailgate, but staying dry and warm for the game. Decent, not great.
It was a ho-hum 11 a.m. start on Big Ten Network, not the bright lights and excitement of national television and a night game. Decent, not great.
Iowa’s offense got things going in the second half, after Nate Stanley shook off a late second quarter interception and another pretty bad series right after. Decent, not great.
The run game found life again, with Toren Young acting as thunder to Akrum Wadley’s lightning, but a few too many rushes were still blown up at or behind the line of scrimmage. Decent, not great.
The defense gave up a big handful of giant “chunk” plays, but the bend-but-don’t-break didn’t break, holding Illinois to field goals on three critical drives. Decent, not great.
The crowd was mostly full, and got loud a few times at key points in the game. The band’s Beatles-themed halftime show was boring-as-usual, but the wave formation was neat. Decent, not great.
Special teams unleashed a couple of successful trick plays and Miguel Recinos remains locked in, but the punt game is still a work-in progress. Decent, not great.
I don’t mean for this to come across as complaining or that I didn’t enjoy the eventual dismantling of Lovie Smith’s Illini. I had a blast tailgating with friends as usual and outside of a few anxious moments in the first half, was never worried Iowa was going to deliver a clunker to a bad team.
It’s just that between Illinois being the shadow of a competitive program, a bye week on the horizon, and a couple Big 10 losses already on the books, the stakes just didn’t feel high enough to justify a lot of intensity. Thank goodness the Iowa players didn’t show that same level of apathy.
Much has already been written about the items on the weekly Ferentzian “clean up” list: picking up run blitzes, ball security, wrapping up on one-on-one tackles and other areas of minor concern. But one gigantic positive that I haven’t seen talked about much, but is a harbinger of better things to come (perhaps even yet this season, but definitely in the longer term) is that the only thing that seems to hold this team back at times is simple consistency.
I just don’t see any glaring holes in talent or scheme. And that’s a pretty big change from the past, including as recently as last season.
In 2016, Iowa didn’t look like it belonged on the same field as Penn State and barely was able to keep up with Wisconsin. That was from both a talent side and a scheme side. Those teams looked like they were playing a better, different form of football than Iowa.
Flash-forward to this season, and the only thing holding Iowa back is itself. Both the Penn State and Michigan State games were there for the taking, if only Iowa could have avoided some self-inflicted disasters.
Perhaps the best example of this is the signal caller, sophomore Nate Stanley. Yes, he still has a tendency to overthrow open receivers (hey, OPEN receivers, that’s a new one!). And he can get a little antsy-pantsy handling the ball (maybe one reason the coaches seem loathe to run sneaks with him?) But the dude stands tall in the pocket and absolutely rifles the ball. He also seems to never get rattled or let a screw up linger and cause him to lose confidence.
Like the rest of the team, all Stanley is missing is a bit more consistency.
If Iowa can harness that consistency and put together 60 minutes of football with the offense, defense and special teams all humming at full capacity in each of its remaining games, this can be a team that rises above decency and approaches greatness.