Howe: Signs of Life

Though it might be hard to tell through the disappointment of losing to your rival, a disastrous Iowa football season is not a given says HI Publisher Rob Howe.

Iowa CITY, Iowa - The pitchforks are out. Not every person in Hawkeye Nation holds one, but some of the die-hards or fickle fans are looking to maim someone.

We need to blame in today's sports world. Shoot, people owe us a pound of flesh if they slip up in society and offend our beliefs. Athletics are its microcosm.

It makes sense. Fans spend money (lots of it in certain cases) and also invest emotionally for years. That's especially true when you're talking about their alma maters.

So, after Iowa's 9-6 home loss to rival Iowa State on Saturday, the blame train gathered steam as it left Kinnick Stadium. The criticisms levied at college players becomes closer to that received by their NFL counterparts with each passing season.

It's tough to say who is public enemy No. 1 on the Hawkeyes sideline. Head Coach Kirk Ferentz and James Vandenberg, his quarterback, are the top contenders. Fire the coach and bench the starting quarterback sit among death and taxes.

There are others receiving criticism. Receivers and tight ends are answering questions about dropped passes. Defenders are asked about missed tackles.

All of these areas, and others, have combined to hurt Iowa through two games. The Hawkeyes have looked way too out of sync for it just to be one person, position or unit. We can save a lot of time by reaching that conclusion or we can hold a public flogging.

The Iowa coaches and players know they're not very good right now. We get tired of hearing them say that they "just need to get better" but they speak the truth.

"It is what it is, and we just have to keep working and playing," Ferentz said Saturday after answering multiple questions about the team's deficiencies.

A more sensible debate occurs when you examine whether or not this team can get better. To a degree, we don't know the answers to that question. Iowa just doesn't have a lot of proven talent.

We knew coming into the season that growth would be necessary for this team to be good. We've learned that the advancement needs to come on offense instead of the other side of the ball as originally predicted by most people.

The defense has done its job. Ferentz and the players on that unit pointed to the way the Cyclones marched down the field for a touchdown on the game's opening drive as a knock on Saturday's performance.

Sorry. The Hawkeyes created four turnovers and the offense put up a total of three points off of them. They made ISU QB Steele Jantz work unlike a year earlier.

Iowa also has performed admirably on special teams, another area of concern coming into the year.

True freshmen Connor Kornbrath has yet to make anyone forget Reggie Roby, but he hasn't crippled his team with his punting. Kicker Mike Meyer is 6 for 7 on field goals and kick coverage has been improved over a year ago.

So, if you're looking for a silver lining from this devastating 1-1 start, two of the three phases arguably have outperformed preseason expectations. If they can continue that level of play, or close to it, the offense just has to be passable.

"I don't think we are that far away but you know, things really have to be clean and crisp right now for us to execute," Ferentz said.

Ten games remain for that to happen. There's a senior quarterback that threw for 25 touchdowns and 3,022 yards a year ago. The offensive line is solid and getting better.

It's not complicated. Vandenberg needs to make better throws and decisions. Receivers and tight ends have to catch the ball when he does.

Iowa has been afforded a lot of opportunities on offense the last two weeks. It's moved the ball well at times, including at the end of Saturday's game. You can see the potential to score points.

The offense hasn't taken a lot of chances. Some of that has to do with not wanting to put an inexperienced defense in the hole with an interception or fumble. Players also are adjusting to some offensive changes with new coordinator Greg Davis.

But more than anything, these are Kirk Ferentz's Hawkeyes. It wouldn't matter if you were a coordinator, it's going to be his philosophy. It's won a lot of football games in Iowa City.

This just in, the coach is conservative. There aren't smoke and mirrors in the attack. It's about execution and limiting mistakes.

The approach put Iowa in position to beat what many analysts feel is a more talented Cyclone team on Saturday. The naysayers would counter that it almost cost the team against underdog Northern Illinois.

Like Ferentz said, it is what it is. Everyone should be used to it after 13 plus years.

"It's one loss," Iowa senior Micah Hyde said. "We still have 10 games left. Tough game last week. Tough game this week. We just keep pushing forward."

There's a good chance the rest of the season is filled with close games. We'll see where it goes.

Believe it or not, there are signs of better days ahead.