Waking up Monday morning without the sting of a loss on Saturday night is a step in the right direction, but there’s certainly a bit of an empty feeling having not watched any Hawkeye football over the weekend. Still, I’m sure the feeling is much stronger for the Iowa players and coaching staff.
The bye week usually comes with pros and cons. It’s an opportunity for the team to get some much deserved rest and healing. After all, fall camp did start over two months ago so this is the first real opportunity for most of these guys to catch their breath since arriving on campus. And while certain injuries aren’t healing in a week, it’s a time for the nicks and dings to get healed up and no games missed for those that need longer.
On the flip side, it’s a week where the rhythm and routine that’s been established for the season gets turned on its head. There’s no offense to install or film to study like there is in a normal week. It’s been.... not great for Kirk Ferentz and staff over the years.
Without even getting into the off-field issues we’ve seen over the years during bye weeks (thank goodness the Iowa City police blotter was clean this week), the on-field results following the bye have been mediocre at best for Ferentz and atrocious at worst. Unfortunately for Iowa fans, “at worst” means on the road, and that’s where the Hawkeyes will be this week.
During his tenure as head coach at Iowa, Captain Kirk is 8-9 following the bye. But that doesn’t begin to tell the whole story. In Kinnick, the Hawkeyes are 6-1 coming off a bye under Kirk. That’s impressive. And there’s some nice scalps on the list. But on the road, it’s U.G.L.Y. Kirk ain’t got no alibi.
Two. And. Eight.
That includes a 17-10 OT loss at Northwestern a season ago, to go along with a number of frustrating performances over the years.
The most concerning thing for Iowa fans is that the trend could continue. Coming off the gut-wrenching loss to Wisconsin at home a week ago, the Hawkeyes should be using the extra time off to refocus and develop a winning gameplan for their trip to Minneapolis this weekend. But if history tells us anything, a road trip following the bye is a recipe for disaster.
It’s especially important this year given what we think we know about this team a third of the way through the season.
The offense has the talent to be good. The defense has shown they can be great. And the schedule has shown it should be soft. So coming off a loss that likely cost Iowa a return trip to Indianapolis, the Hawkeyes need a get-right game to set up a run through the rest of that schedule that doesn’t leave Iowa fans feelings like the season was a disappointment.
What, exactly, am I talking about with the schedule? Well, have a look.
The combined record of Iowa’s remaining opponents is 19-16. Eleven of those 19 wins are from the three crossover teams - Indiana, Maryland and Penn State. Minnesota (along with Iowa and Wisconsin) is the only team from the Big Ten West with a winning record. Penn State is the only remaining game with a team that’s currently ranked.
If the Hawkeyes can get out of their own way, things set up very nicely for a stretch run. In reality, they should be favored in every remaining game with the exception of that date in Happy Valley at the end of October. That’s a really tough place to win, but it’s not totally out of the realm of possibility that Iowa has its annual “punching above its weight” game that day.
After all, the Hawkeyes gave Penn State all they could handle in Iowa City a year ago. While Iowa has since lost tremendous talents on defense in Josey Jewell and Josh Jackson, as well as playmaker Akrum Wadley, the Nittany Lions are without stars Mike Gesicki and Saquon Barkley, as well as offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead.
This weekend, a very talented Ohio State team showed it’s not impossible to win in Happy Valley (and people forget the last team to beat Ohio State was Iowa - 55-24 on November 4th, 2017). And Penn State showed us it’s not just Iowa fans who second guess offensive play calling. Mark me down as optimistic that the Hawkeyes can compete in this one, even if we don’t agree with every decisions along the way.
The question, to me, isn’t whether the Hawkeyes have what it takes to pull off a big run or an impressive win, but whether they can avoid the annual stinker. So far, we haven’t seen it and we’re through the month of September. Iowa showed up against NIU and UNI, and while the offense didn’t light the world on fire against Iowa State, it was a win.
The loss to Wisconsin stung, but it certainly doesn’t qualify as the clunker we all expect to see once a year. It was more of a “what if” game if anything.
So can the Hawkeyes rattle off a string of victories without shooting themselves in the foot along the way? This weekend will be a major test. If history tells us anything, it’s that Iowa is likely to come out with a lot of rust to shake off.
This Minnesota team isn’t exactly a world beater. They may have the best record of any opponent left on the schedule ex-PSU, but they’re also without star running back Rodney Smith, as well as sophomore safety Antoine Winfield Jr., who had a fumble recovery, interception and a punt return for touchdown on the season.
They haven’t exactly played a murderer’s row, with wins over New Mexico State, Fresno State and Miami of Ohio. In their only real test, they got obliterated by Maryland a week ago.
Knowing exactly what to take away from that one is still difficult. That’s a Maryland team that earned some national respect when they beat Texas earlier this year. They turned around a promptly lost it when they got blown out by Temple.
The Hawkeyes should be able to hold the Golden Gopher offense reasonably in check. Wisconsin exposed some potential weaknesses at cornerback and the loss of Nick Niemann could pose a problem, as he was Iowa’s best cover linebacker. But all-in-all, I expect Iowa to be able to keep Minnesota under their season average of 27 points per game.
The question most of us will be looking to have answered, is whether Brian Ferentz can find a way to get the offense to top 27 points. As BoilerHawk so aptly pointed out last week, good things seem to happen for the Hawkeyes when they get over 17 points under Kirk Ferentz. It’s getting there that can be the challenge.
Coming off a bye, I think I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have my concerns. But I am hopeful. Brian has a handful of teams he seems to really dislike. Minnesota is one of them. While he only managed to put up 17 against the Golden Gophers a season ago, we did see him taking some shots.
It will now be incumbent upon him to do more than take the occasional shot. He’ll need to put together a full gameplan, with multiple shots that don’t kill drives if they aren’t executed to perfection. He’ll need to stay with the run when it’s effective, but not be so stubborn as to miss opportunities to throw. Candidly, he’ll need to do what we haven’t seen him do outside a few examples in his young tenure as OC.
If he can, this season remains on schedule to be very good. Those preseason predictions north of 8-4 will look much more like a probability than a possibility. I’ll continue to think this team can get to 10-2 without anything crazy happening, but we need a “show me” game, and this is the perfect opportunity.
It’s an opportunity to show that the past isn’t always the present. That 2-8 doesn’t need to be 2-9. That the offense can be what we all hoped during the offseason. That the defense is still as good as we saw it be in the first three weeks. It’s an opportunity to show Hawkeye fans that all is not lost with a loss to Wisconsin, that this can still be a special season.
It’s a chance to spend another year smiling, every time you have a bite of bacon. I’m ready to feel a whole lot happier next Monday morning.
Happy Monday. Take advantage of the opportunities in front of you this week. Go Hawks. Beat Minnesota.