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HERE'S THE THING: WISCONSIN

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What really matters about Iowa's game with Wisconsin on Saturday? HINT: it's not really the golden idol the two teams are playing for.

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Earlier this week, the folks at Bucky's 5th Quarter asked me about the current impression Hawkeye fans had about the season to date.  I said that Iowa's 7-3 record had met the bare minimum of expectations this season.  I still think that's generally true.  Saying it could be worse is both true -- the 4-8 debacle of 2012 is still fresh in our minds and Pat's trip to Champaign highlighted the danger of what pervasive apathy can do to a program and a fanbase -- and a hoary old cliche.  To this point, Iowa has been essentially a C student -- they've done enough to win (most of) the games they should, but they haven't done anything to truly excel, either.

The win-loss record is an important way to gauge the success of a season, but it's only part of the picture.  In my mind, there are several things that matter when you reflect on a season.  Did you beat your rivals?  Did you play for anything meaningful, like a championship or a significant bowl game?  Did you have any memorable wins?  Unfortunately, to this point Iowa's season has been a straight failure on all fronts.

Iowa hasn't beaten a team with a winning record all season.  They're 0-2 against actual rivals, sputtering away a win at home over a lousy Iowa State team and getting destroyed on a road trip to Minnesota.  And as for memories... right now, the best memory to come out of this season is Iowa blasting Northwestern by 40.  After that, the best memory is... what?  That first quarter against Indiana?  Beathard leading a comeback win over a middling Pitt team?  Grinding out a win over UNI?  A furious fourth quarter comeback against... Ball State?  Ho-hum road wins over Purdue and Illinois?  That's slim pickings there.

Iowa's 7-3 now, which is the sort of record that looks... OK.  Not great, not awful, but OK.  But Iowa's a 10-point underdog to Wisconsin this weekend and there's a very strong possibility that they'll also be underdogs against Nebraska on Black Friday.  Lose those games and Iowa's sitting at 7-5, which is almost the textbook definition of mediocre.  Lose those games and Iowa goes 0-4 in trophy games -- or 0-4 in games against rivals we give a shit about, if you don't particularly give a damn about the Heroes Game Trophy.  Lose those games and Iowa won't be playing for anything meaningful -- no Big Ten championships, no intriguing bowl games.  Lose those games and the best memory of this season remains hamblasting Northwestern, which is fine and all... but it's like saying that the best burger you had was at McDonald's.

And 7-5 looks worse when you consider the expectations that this team entered the season with, given the returning talent on both sides of the ball and the schedule that (on paper) looked eminently manageable.  (And the reality of the schedule hasn't been much different; Iowa's done a poor job of managing it, but outside of Minnesota, I'm not sure anyone on the schedule has looked appreciably better than we expected in the off-season.)  7-5 looks even worse when you consider the individual talent this team has, too.  Brandon Scherff is still likely to be a high draft pick.  Carl Davis will hear his name called during the NFL Draft, as will Louis Trinca-Pasat, probably.  In fact, I could see 5-6 players from this defense winding up in the NFL; in addition to Davis and LTP, Drew Ott will likely get a shot and given Phil Parker's success at placing defensive backs in the NFL, I wouldn't count out Desmond King or even Greg Mabin.  One of Iowa's linebackers (perhaps Josey Jewell) could wind up with a shot in the NFL, too, given sufficient development.  (Not many peopled would have pegged Anthony Hitchens as a future NFL player after his redshirt freshman year, either.)

But 7-5 is not written in stone.  Iowa still has a chance to win 8, 9, or 10 games.  (Technically, we could go so far as to envision them wining 11 games if we engage in some really hardcore pharmaceutical usage, but let's pump the brakes a bit.)  They still have a chance to beat one (or two) rivals and make sure the trophy case isn't barren.  They still have a chance to record a memorable win.  They still even have a chance to play for a Big Ten title.  The last time we could say that this late in the season was 2009.  But to make any of that a reality, Iowa has to play to a level we've seen only fleeting glimpses of to this point.  A drive or two here, a quarter there.

Can they play to that level for a full game?  The track record of this season says no, especially against an opponent as formidable as this Wisconsin team (which may not be a great team, but is a very, very good team).  There's a reason I picked them to lose by two scores earlier in the week, after all.  But if Iowa wanted to put together one of those performances where they play at a really high level, where everything clicks, where the play-calling gets a little frisky and where they knock off a superior opponent (think: Michigan State 2010, Nebraska 2013, Northwestern 2000, Michigan 2011, Penn State 2008)... well, this would be a pretty great time to do that.

The players and coaches all say they want to have a chance to play for something in November.  Well, here it is.  Go out and show it.  Because if not now... when?