IOWA CITY, Iowa — Iowa entered September as the prohibitive Big Ten West favorite and, if everything went right, perhaps even a dark horse national title contender.
The Hawkeyes opened October in a tailspin.
Iowa’s loss to North Dakota State on Sept. 17, which appeared to be an anomaly at the time, was actually the start of an unexpected downturn. The Hawkeyes (3-2, 1-1 Big Ten) then barely beat Rutgers, and last week lost at home to Northwestern.
This weekend’s game at Minnesota (3-1, 0-1) was supposed to serve as Iowa’s first major road test. It has instead become an apparent turning point for the season.
“What we’re focusing on this week is getting back to playing Iowa football,” tackle Boone Myers said. “Tough, hard-nosed football. Doing your job. Doing it well and finishing games. That’s what we did last year, and that’s what we’ve got to get back to.”
Iowa’s inability to do the little things well has led to some big issues.
The Hawkeyes can’t stop the run, ranking 87th nationally in rush defense. Lately it can barely run the ball either, averaging less than four yards a carry in its last three games after an encouraging start.
Iowa’s passing game hasn’t been able to bail out the offense, and it can be argued that the Hawkeyes MVP through five games is punter Ron Coluzzi.
“I don’t think any of us are playing perfect or coaching perfect, so we’re all frustrated right now,” coach Kirk Ferentz said. “There’s not a person in our whole organization who can’t do a better job.”
But the biggest problem Iowa has faced this season has been that leaky rush defense.
The Hawkeyes are allowing 183 yards per game on the ground, and it’s not as though they’ve played against top-notch opponents. The Wildcats had 198 yards last week and they’re still 13th in the Big Ten overall.
The main issue, according to Iowa defensive tackle Nathan Bazata, is that not everyone has been where they need to be when they need to be there.
“We have to play our assignments. We’ve seen that a lot this last week, and if a couple of guys aren’t doing their job it really can create a hole for them to run through,” Bazata said.
Still, the notion that the Hawkeyes are doomed to collapse remains premature.
Many of the veterans who played key roles in last season’s 12-0 regular season are still starting. Their two losses have come by a combined nine points, and overall Iowa is scoring 12 points more per game than their opponents.
The fact that odds makers have installed Iowa as a road favorite against the Gophers, albeit by just 2.5 points, is further proof that a few small tweaks could make a major difference.
“We’re a few plays away from being 5-0,” cornerback Desmond King said. “We know what kind of team we have. We have to take ownership and move forward.”