Howe: Another Step Back for Hawkeyes

Howe: Another Step Back for Hawkeyes

Western Michigan pulled off an unsuspected 28-19 upset of Iowa, leaving in its wake a Hawkeye team asking itself a lot of question. HN.com Columnist Rob Howe looks into what went wrong in Iowa City this season and what the future might hold.

IOWA CITY, Iowa - Albert Young answered much harder questions in his Iowa career, but none were tougher. When a reporter asked about the future of the program, he broke down in tears and exited the interview room.

It was as if the magnitude of Iowa's stunning 28-19 loss to Western Michigan on Saturday hit the Hawkeye running back all at once. In the tunnel, the water streamed from his eyes.

The future of the program was supposed to include a bowl game next month. Instead, while there remained an outside chance that Iowa makes the postseason, the likely reality was that Senior Day represented the last college game for Young.

Iowa has said good-bye to every senior class since 2000 with a bowl game. The Hawkeyes' sent this group off one of the most disappointing and inexcusable losses in head coach Kirk Ferentz's nine years at the helm.

A two-touchdown favorite against a Broncos team with three wins in 10 games before Saturday. Yet, Western looked like the school playing for late December. Iowa brought to mind a squad going through the motions in a meaningless season finale. It puzzled Insight and Champs Bowls representatives, who shook their heads in disbelief throughout the contest.

Many of the Iowa players said the team suffered from fundamental breakdowns Saturday. That should not have happened in Week 12.

"It's probably just a lack of focus," Iowa Linebacker Mike Humpal said. "To put it simply, they were ready to go from the start and they fought the whole game. We didn't fight the whole game."

It certainly hasn't been a smooth season for the Hawkeyes. Injuries, off field issues and youth hampered them. But to come out flat on Saturday was disturbing.

"It was a very bumpy season," Iowa cornerback Charles Godfrey said. "I think we fought at times. But at the end of the year when it counted, I don't think we stepped up to the plate."

There's a simple question a fan can ask himself after a season in figuring out the state of his favorite school. Is the team heading into the off season in better shape than it did the prior year?

Well, '06 ended with a close loss to defending national champion Texas in the Alamo Bowl. The Hawkeyes lacked the necessary effort at times last year and it resulted in two-a-day bowl preparation and a return to "Iowa football." No more Fat Cats, as Ferentz referred to his team after an embarrassing 21-7 loss to Northwestern at Kinnick.

The effort definitely improved as a whole this season, but Saturday's listless performance throws up a red flag. It's going to take more than changing the calendar to fix this thing.

Coach Ferentz said after Saturday's game that every aspect of the program will be evaluated. Please don't take that as a call to fire assistants or make wholesale changes to schemes. Folks, that's not going to happen.

After every season, Ferentz evaluates his program. Yet, change has been slow. He's very set in his ways.

Iowa has enjoyed a lot of success with Ferentz and his approach. There certainly is a chance that the Hawkeyes can move back up the conference standings staying status quo. But after an 18-18 combined record the last three seasons, you have to ask whether this thing is headed in the right direction just as you believed in this team when it compiled a 31-7 mark from '02-04.

It's not being disloyal to question the future. This is a business. The coaches make a lot of money. You get to analyze just as the athletic director does. It appears programs like Illinois, Indiana and Michigan State are heading up, while the Hawks are declining.

Iowa thrived on out hustling the opposition, being tougher than opponents and being mentally strong during the good times under Ferentz. It's now been three seasons in a row where that's become inconsistent. It's turned into a trend.

It's unsettling when you look on the field and witness defeated body language. You can see a disconnection between quarterback Jake Christensen and his receivers. They might not literally be pointing fingers, but they might as well be.

After Christensen threw an interception on a pass intended for Darrell Johnson-Koulianos, the receiver ran through the end zone and was shaking hands with fans as a Western player ran the other way with the ball. You just didn't see things like that from '02-04. DJK would have had to deal with Robert Gallery when he got back to the sideline.

The coaches have lost some institutional control, both on and off the field. Some of that falls at the feet of the players, but it also rests on the staff.

Saturday, Johnson-Koulianos muffs a kickoff and gets yanked from those duties. Paul Chaney mishandled a punt last week and was replaced. Travis Meade was benched this season for ineffective play.

Meanwhile, Iowa stayed with Christensen through thick and thin this year. And, there was plenty of thin. Last season, when Drew Tate struggled at quarterback he was pulled at Minnesota for Christensen.

Now, you can say Christensen represented a more capable backup to Tate than did Arvell Nelson and Rick Stanzi this year. That's fair. But it also sends a bad message to team members when one guy gets to play through mistakes and others don't.

We'll also go into the off season wondering what might have happened had Iowa ran the ball more against a Western team that gave almost 200 yards on the ground. Young carried just 17 times, gaining 95 yards (5.6 per carry).

We'll wonder why for two seasons, Iowa failed to get consistent pressure on the quarterback. The 489 yards allowed to the Broncos on Saturday tied Penn State for the most by an Iowa opponent. Sophomore QB Tim Hiller looked like Joe Montana.

A 6-6 mark against a schedule without Michigan and Ohio State isn't good enough. Iowa defeated two bowl teams in Illinois and Michigan State. The other four victories came against schools with a combined record of 11-35 after Saturday. None had winning seasons.

Yes, Iowa exited Kinnick surrounded by many questions going forward into the future. Mantras like "Next Man In", "Breaking the Rock" and "Going Back to Work" are ringing more hollow with each year passing year.

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