WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. _ A pretty simple question received a pretty simple answer.
Iowa quarterback Jake Christensen was asked to find positives in his team’s 31-6 loss here against Purdue Saturday at Ross-Ade Stadium.
“I can’t think of one,” he said.
If there were any, they were pretty well hidden. After the Hawkeyes dropped their fourth game in their last five outings to fall to 3-5 overall and 1-4 in the Big Ten, one thing became abundantly clear - Iowa is a bad football team.
You can spin this thing however you’d like, but that’s the bottom line. Yeah, there are injuries, but the inexperience excuse is getting played out when two thirds of the season is in your rearview mirror.
“It’s very frustrating. We’ve been talking about potential for a while,” Christensen said. “It’s our job as players to turn the potential into something tangible.”
Iowa has been hit hard by injuries at the receiver position, but young guys like Darrell Johnson-Koulianos, Paul Chaney and James Cleveland have gotten a lot of reps this season. Still, Christensen said he and the group were not on the same page a number of times on Saturday. It resulted in another day where Iowa was on the short end of the time of possession battle by more than 10 minutes.
“We’re putting our defense in a tough of situation. They’re on the field all day against a passing offense,” Christensen said. “They’re going to get tired. They’re going to look like they’re not playing well in the second half. They played a great first half and we just kept throwing them out there and putting them in bad situations.”
Thanksgiving is a month away, but Hawkeye fans should be darn glad of two things: 1) Michigan and Ohio State aren’t on the schedule this year and 2) Minnesota plays in the Big Ten.
The days of bullying the conference seem very distant. The Hawkeyes need to win three of their last four ballgames just to reach bowl eligibility. Instead of last year being a blip on the radar, it’s turning into a foreshadowing of troubles ahead.
It looked like Iowa had righted the ship a week ago in dropping then No. 18 Illinois, 10-6. The Hawkeye offense possessed the ball enough to let a talented defense rest enough to be very effective. It was a giant leap from ineptitude two weeks ago at Penn State when they went three and out on eight consecutive possessions.
But unlike the Iowa teams earlier in the Kirk Ferentz era that got better with age, this group showed on Saturday that its still got major issues. There were dropped passes, penalties, bad passes, missed blocks and breakdowns on defense, before and after it was worn down. It looked like a complete collection of the ills that have popped up throughout the season.
After Week 8, the players, especially the seniors, looked stunned after the game.
“I definitely didn’t plan on starting 3-5 or ending my career like this,” senior running back Damian Sims said. “We have four games left that we can salvage, and it can go either way. We can make some plays and win or just go down.”
You’d love to believe winning out is possible, but it would be tough to mount a strong case of it happening after Saturday‘s showing. That is what Ferentz told his team in the locker room. He has no choice. That’s all he has left to sell.
“Coach just told us it’s a four-game schedule, Christensen said. “We have four huge games left on our schedule. Every team can beat us on that schedule, and if we play well enough we could be in every single one of those games. It’s do or die time.”
Can Iowa do or is the latter more likely? Iowa leaves here coming off a worse performance than it delivered at Penn State. And Purdue got hammered the previous two weeks and really hadn’t beaten anybody of consequence. The argument could be made that they still haven’t.
Due largely to high expectations before the season, we’re tending to wonder how this could be happening. Reality is that the other teams are better. It’s not a fluke.
“Today, they were just the better team,” Iowa senior running back Albert Young said. “We feel like there were games that we had opportunities. We didn’t take advantage and it cost us. But that’s football. We’re the team that’s not getting over that hump.”
Purdue benefited from a pair of questionable pass interference calls on Saturday. They were head-shakers. But that’s how it’s gone during the last two years. Iowa hasn’t gotten many breaks or made them.
“Last week, I felt like we had an answer,” Sims said. “We have to stop making mistakes. We help teams out because we make a lot of mistakes. We’re not a good enough team to overcome those mistakes.”
Iowa converted its first third down opportunity and then missed on its next 12, going 3 of 16 for the game. The Hawkeyes have scored two touchdowns in the last three weeks.
“We were hoping to come out here and really get our momentum going these last few games,” Iowa center Rafael Eubanks said. “This will obviously put a stall to it. We just have to go back to work. I know we say that every week, but there’s still season left and we can still make something out of it. It comes down to what we want to make of it.”
It seems all season that we’ve been waiting for this team to make something of this season. It’s running out of time.
Michigan State comes to Iowa City next week after testing top-ranked Ohio State in Columbus on Saturday before falling 24-17. The Spartans lead the Big Ten in scoring.
“We don’t want to take anything away from our D, but we can’t expect to compete with a team like Michigan State with only six points,” Young said. “That’s just not realistic.”
We’ll see how the Iowa players get up for their remaining schedule. It’s one thing being sky high for a ranked Illinois team or a night game at Wisconsin.
The Hawkeyes have dug themselves into a hole of obscurity in the college football world. Their remaining games will be irrelevant to most eyes around the country. They’re not in a spoiler role or playing for a January bowl.
It’s down to pride. It’s down to making a statement about where this program stands and where it’s headed. That’s what is left.