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The Wild, Wild West

Thanks to an Illinois home loss to the Spartans, Iowa is very much alive in the Big Ten West. So if everyone else.

NCAA Football: Iowa at Illinois
Could Iowa’s 6-9 loss to Illinois come back to haunt them?
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in!

And just as Michael Corleone could never get out, Hawkeye fans will forever be stuck in this love-hate relationship with the team we all follow.

Two weeks ago, this season had the feel of 2014. The Hawkeyes were 3-4 overall and 1-3 in the conference. They were sitting at the bottom of the Big Ten West standings alongside an abysmal Northwestern team and things looked completely and utterly broken on offense.

We all know by now that Iowa was sitting at dead last nationally in total offense and close to it in scoring offense and myriad other measures of offensive proficiency. Anger and frustration were beginning to give way to apathy. Things were so bad, a portion of the fanbase simply didn’t care anymore. So when the offense appeared almost competent a week ago against that same abysmal Northwestern team the Hawkeyes shared a cellar spot with in the conference standings, some people didn’t notice and even fewer people were convinced it was a sign that things had actually improved.

But that may have changed on Saturday. For the second game in a row, the Iowa offense looked borderline serviceable against another Big Ten team. Before we get to all the caveats, every Hawkeye fan has to admit there was a point in the second quarter of Saturday’s game where they wondered where in the heck that offense had been all season and how great it felt to watch a team run out a very good defense that was not only not worn down from being on the field constantly, but also able to pin their ears back and play with a lead because the offense looked solid.

It. Felt. Good.

And in that instant, we were all pulled back in.

We completely disregarded the fact that this Purdue defense, despite what their fanbase (and even their media members) wanted to say about them, was not a great one. They came into the game around middle of the pack nationally and slightly below that miserable Northwestern defense in stopping the run.

We forgot for a second that even at 387 yards per game over the last two weeks, Iowa would still be below the median total offense nationally at 401 yards per game. It was irrelevant because even at just below average, it was an astonishing 70% improvement in offensive output vs. the prior seven weeks.

None of the nonsense that we had seen up until that point mattered because things were going right. Forget that it all, and by all I mean all 24 points and nearly 65% of the total offensive output, came on four possessions that were played in just over the span of one quarter. The only thing that mattered was it was able to show up long enough for Iowa to come out on the right side of things on a day where so many teams came out on the wrong side of things.

On Saturday, we saw nine of the top-25 teams from last week’s initial College Football Playoff rankings go down. Granted, several of those losses came to other ranked teams, but the vast majority saw the higher ranked teams lose.

The carnage hit close to home as the vaunted Ohio State Buckeyes nearly lost to that same abysmal Northwestern team Iowa dispatched with a week prior. Michigan struggled for more than half a game with Rutgers before waking up. And the 17th ranked Illinois Fighting Illini never snapped out of it.

The end result, and why Hawkeye fans can never truly get out, is that Iowa wakes up on Monday morning in a three-way tie for second place in the Big Ten West and very much alive for a return trip to Indianapolis.

The Fighting Illini have a date with Purdue this weekend and while the Boilermakers are clearly very beatable, Illinois showed last weekend that what they showed for most of their season was an ability to run the ball with little else offensively. It’s a game Purdue is capable of winning and given the Illini are set to travel to Michigan the following week, their spot atop the West standings is very much in jeopardy.

For Iowa, the schedule gives us three straight matchups against rivals. This week is an afternoon kickoff against the Wisconsin Badgers. Bucky has had a very up and down season, but appears to have gotten things clicking offensively since the departure of Paul Chryst. Now the Hawkeyes will need to figure out that 3-3-5 Jim Leonhard defense to keep their hopes alive in the West.

But it’s very doable. The Badgers have losses to very mediocre Michigan State and Washington State teams on their resume, and they were absolutely obliterated by the Illini in their matchup in Champaign.

Then it’s a trip to Minneapolis to take on the Gophers, who have already lost to Purdue and Illinois while looking very beatable against Nebraska last week. And speaking of the Huskers, Iowa of course closes things out with a coachless Nebraska team that has lost three straight and is staring down the barrel of matchups with Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa to close out the year.

All that to say, for as bad as things were a few short weeks ago, Iowa is very much alive in the West. Yes, they need the offense to be what it has been the last two weeks instead of what it was the prior seven. But if the Hawkeyes can get just some mediocre production on offense, rounding out the year with three more wins is incredibly doable.

And if - and it’s clearly a very big if given what we did see for most of this season - Iowa can do that, the Hawkeyes are two Illinois losses away from a return to Indianapolis. It would be another back door divisional title and it would surely be another public execution on national television. But it would also be only the second time a team from the West has repeated as divisional champion and it would put the Hawkeyes behind only Ohio State and Wisconsin in terms of most Big Ten Championship Game appearances.

Hope, as they say, is a dangerous thing. It can drive a man insane. But hope, Hawkeye fans should have. Such is life in the wild, wild West.