EVANSTON, Ill. -
Early in the season, there was hope for much needed improvement. Inexperienced Iowa could come around with hard work and seasoning.
Iowa fans witnessed it before during Kirk Ferentz's first 13 years as head coach. The Hawkeyes built towards success later in the season.
With two thirds of the campaign in the rearview mirror, time is running out. Optimism for a strong finish during the final four games seems like blind faith at this point.
The Hawkeyes took another step in forming their identity for 2012 Saturday here at Ryan Field. Northwestern controlled them for most of the afternoon in a 28-17 victory.
Ferentz and his players didn't make excuses. They haven't done so all season. Give them credit for that, their effort and willingness to fight until the final horn, which was evident Saturday when they came back from a 28-3 deficit and the week before when they closed strong in a blowout loss to Penn State.
Fight and fortitude can only carry you so far, however. Taking nothing away from its opponents, Iowa finds a way to hurt itself each week.
Against Northwestern, the Hawkeyes performed poor fundamentally on defense. They missed tackles and/or were out of position too many times. The Wildcats rushed for 349 yards and made it look easy.
Iowa knew the Wildcats were going to run and couldn't stop them. Last week, in a 38-14 loss to Penn State, the Hawkeyes couldn't cover receivers and tight ends. Two different offensive attacks finding great success against the same overmatched defense.
That's a bad sign. It's bad because the defense was the strength of this team for much of the season until falling apart the last two weeks. It's bad because the offense is nowhere near being able to come from behind, let alone execute consistently enough to challenge the other team.
Iowa added in three delay of game penalties and allowed a blocked punt. The first issue cost it points. The second miscue set Northwestern up at the Hawkeye four-yard line from which they scored a touchdown one play later.
"We didn't do the things necessary to win, and that's disappointing " Ferentz said.
Iowa fell to 4-4 overall and 2-2 in the Big Ten. Unless there's a remarkable turnaround and some help from other teams in the league, the Hawkeyes streak without a conference title will stretch to eight years.
Fans certainly are becoming restless after 8-5 and 7-6 records the last two years. Everything looks painfully hard to accomplish for Iowa on both sides of the ball while the opponents' attack appears to take much less effort.
"I'm down right now, but what can you do about it," Iowa MLB James Morris said. "You can sit and drag your feet and look for pity, which we're not going to get any. We just have to pick ourselves up, come together and keep playing football."
And they will. Pride will ensure it.
Unfortunately, the results of this season have created a harsh reality. This is an average football team, at best, and a program stuck in neutral.
Northwestern didn't get lucky. It was clearly better, and one could make an argument that the Wildcats have past Iowa in the Big Ten hierarchy. They most certainly boast more playmakers.
It's too early to cash in the chips for this season. At some point, however, the coaches need to look towards doing whatever it can to make sure the situation improves next season.
The results of Iowa football shouldn't be treated like life or death. Perspective needs to be kept.
Fans invest a lot, however, monetarily and emotionally. These are tough times to be a Hawkeye follower. And the future is becoming more worrisome by the week.