COLUMBUS, Ohio - Any athlete or coach with a pulse bristles at the notion of moral victories. They should.
"The objective is to win," Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said here on Saturday. "As long as they keep score, that's what you're trying to do. We came up short today."
Exactly. If the worst team faces the best one, it wants to win. When it doesn't, it feels bad.
The Hawkeyes were not smiling in Ohio Stadium after dropping a 34-24 decision to Ohio State in front of 105,264 fans, most of whom were rooting against them.
"The whole time we wanted to come in here and win the game," said Hawkeye Safety Johnny Lowdermilk, who returned to his home state. "We thought we were going to come in and win."
Much like what happened against Michigan State two weeks ago, the Hawkeyes played a strong first half here on Saturday. Like they did against the Spartans, they led going into the intermission. They were ahead 17-10 on the No. 4 Buckeyes as a 17-point underdog.
Ohio State outscored the visitors 24-7 after the break. Michigan State won the second half against the Hawkeyes, 16-0.
"You don't' get prizes for playing a good first half," Ferentz said. "You've got to play a full 60 minutes. I think we all realize that.
"So, now it's a matter of what we do to be in a better situation when we get this chance."
That's the takeaway from Saturday's game. Iowa needs to learn how to finish games. No one should assume that's going to happen because it played toe-to-toe with the Big Ten's best.
Northwestern pushed the Buckeyes to the brink earlier this month. The Wildcats got pounded, 35-6, a week later at Wisconsin and lost, 20-17, at home on Saturday against a Minnesota team that came into the contest winless in the conference.
Playing well against Ohio State was not an indicator of future success for Northwestern. Iowa's performance against the Buckeyes also won't win it anything against a tough five-game schedule to finish out the regular season.
It's fair to say that the Hawkeyes are improving. And it's night and day from last year, when Iowa likely would have been annihilated. That progress must continue.
"The guys practiced well the last two weeks," Ferentz said. "I think their mental framework has been good. But we still have to get better. There are a lot of things that, to me, we did today that are correctable that would have made it tougher on our opponent.
"That's our challenge. I think it's all about what we do moving forward."
Some Iowa fans could fall into a false sense of security based on how their team performed against the Buckeyes. Many of them will be over confident going into next week's home game against a reeling Northwestern squad, who fell to a Gophers group the Hawkeyes handled pretty easily on the road.
Logic hasn't been really reliable in the Big Ten this season. Winless Purdue hung with unbeaten Michigan State Saturday. Indiana put up 47 points and scared mighty Michigan in Ann Arbor a week after scoring four touchdowns against a stiff Spartans defense in East Lansing.
"We played hard," Iowa Defensive Tackle Louis Trinca-Pasat said. "We improved. We just have to execute every play. It comes down to the full 60 minutes.
"If we keep doing that, this team has a lot of heart, we're going to come out victorious."
The Iowa players seem to understand the path on which they need to stay to change their results. The challenge now is to do it.
"I think we've come long strides from where we were the first game of the season," safety Tanner Miller said. "That's the one thing about this team is we're continuing to get better. We know we can play with the best teams in the Big Ten.
"I think we did that today. We just didn't have enough to finish the deal. We have to take the positives out of here and take them into next week."