Marching toward mediocrity? Iowa football is all close, but no cigar

Well at least we don’t have to worry about arguing with AP voters not placing Iowa in their Top 25 poll this week.

The Hawkeyes managed to fritter away any chance at rankings, relevance or redemption from last year’s narrow loss to Northwestern by repeatedly, mind-numbingly, ridiculously shooting itself in the foot over and over in a dispiriting overtime loss to the Wildcats in Evanston on Saturday.

As anyone who regularly reads this column knows, I often advocate for giving credit to the opponent and not just focusing on the mistakes of your own team. But for the third time in a loss this season, it was primarily Iowa miscues and basic execution errors that prevented the black and gold from winning.

Failing to catch a punt led to bad field position that resulted in Northwestern’s go-ahead touchdown. A ridiculous false start on fourth-and-less than one late made Iowa kick a tying field goal instead of likely getting a go-ahead touchdown. A blown backfield assignment led to the long run in overtime setting up the Wildcat’s winning score. Dropped passes, a missed field goal and a litany of other errors large and small conspired to prevent what looked like a better Iowa team taking advantage of a pesky (and less error-prone) foe.

This brings me to my other sore spot of the weekend. While I share in the collective angst over this loss, I am a bit perplexed why it has manifested itself in so much vitriolic rage aimed at the Iowa coaches from Iowa fans.

I’ve always believed that a coaching staff’s primary job was to put its team in position to win, and Iowa’s has done that every week. Saturday’s game was there for the taking. But again – just like in the Michigan State game – it was lack of consistency, untimely errors and general screw ups by players that led directly to the loss.

Now, I don’t absolve the staff from all blame. Indeed, it is their job to coach the players up so such errors are few and far between and not seemingly always happening at critical times. But I’m not sure that is a legitimate criticism this season. (People who call me a coaching apologist will call these excuses, but I believe they are objective reasons.)

The biggest one is that 2017 was always going to be a rebuilding year of sorts.

No one wanted the Greg Davis offense to be retired more than me, but adding a new coordinator and other new coaches is always going to result in some growing pains. Throw in the fact Iowa is breaking in a new starting quarterback, virtually all new receiving corps and is playing more true freshman than ever in the Ferentz era and it really isn’t surprising things look hinky and out-of-sorts on the offensive side of the ball.

The critical thing now is for this current crop of Iowa players – and the coaches in new positions – learn from their failures and excel in the future. I am currently reading a biography of Henry Ford, and America’s pre-eminent industrialist frequently talked about failure being the only sure way to eventual improvement. My favorite of his (numerous) quotes on the subject follows:

“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”

This must be the mantra of every Iowa player and coach going forward for the rest of this season.

In addition, it should also be noted that thus far, Iowa has won every game it was favored in and lost every one in which it was an underdog.

While Kirk Ferentz has earned a reputation for slipping up against underdogs, that is not a fair disparagement to throw his way this season, no matter how badly many Hawkeye fans want to believe Northwestern is still the abject failure of a program it was in the 1980s when Hayden Fry routinely hung 50 or more points on them. Being mad that Ferentz doesn’t do the same is just not being very smart about the current landscape of college football or Big 10 history.

One slice of light in the gray cloud of the Northwestern loss is that once again, the game was there for the taking. Unlike last year – when Iowa was run off the field by Penn State and manhandled by Wisconsin – the team hasn’t once looked like it didn’t belong on the same field as its opponent.

Now, this could still happen in a couple weeks when the vaunted Buckeyes come to town, but I think this team – despite its warts and propensity for ill-timed gaffes – has enough raw talent, heart and grit to hang with anyone they play.

And as fans, is there really anything more we are owed?

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