It wasn’t supposed to be this way for Iowa football in 2016.
Now sitting at 3-2 with a 1-1 Big Ten record after a 38-31 loss to Northwestern, one has to wonder just how good (or bad) this Hawkeyes team is.
In a vacuum, a loss to Northwestern isn’t earth shattering. Pat Fitzgerald has kept the Wildcats’ program extremely competitive over the past few season, so it’s not like the 38-31 loss stands out on paper.
Unfortunately for Iowa, though, games like last weekend’s aren’t just played in a vacuum. They’re part of the overall puzzle of the 2016 season and right now the picture that puzzle is making is a troubling one for fans of Iowa football.
A few weeks ago, Iowa was 2-0 and ranked No. 13 nationally in the AP Top 25. The Hawkeyes were coming off a dismantling of arch rival Iowa State and looked to have an easy road ahead of North Dakota State, Rutgers and Northwestern.
Iowa seemed to be tracking well for its goals. At best, the Hawkeyes were thought of as a potential dark horse College Football Playoff team — bringing back many members from an elite 2015 defense and featuring one of the best backfields in the Big Ten with senior quarterback C.J. Beathard leading the way.
At worst, Iowa was expected to be seriously competitive in the Big Ten West and compete for a chance to represent the division in Indianapolis.
Few, if any, saw this rocky patch coming.
As it stands, Iowa is now third in the Big Ten West behind undefeated Nebraska (No. 12 nationally) and a Wisconsin team that went toe-to-toe with undefeated Michigan in Ann Arbor and lost, 14-7. Overall in the Big Ten, six schools currently have a better record than Iowa, with one, Penn State, also checking in at 3-2.
So how did we get here?
Only one of the above mentioned three games turned out to be a win for Iowa, and even that one wasn’t easy. The Hawkeyes lost on a last-second field goal to NDSU in what will go down as an all-time college football upset, they barely squeaked by Rutgers, 14-7, and of course, lost to Northwestern.
Against the Wildcats, the Hawkeyes gave up 362 yards and only accumulated 283. Yes, Iowa’s running game was able to notch three touchdowns — Akrum Wadley led the way with two — but as a group, the Hawkeyes were only able to rush for 79 yards. LeShun Daniels Jr. notched 62 and Wadley added 35 of his own, but Beathard was sacked six times and totaled negative 28 yards on the ground.
Northwestern senior defensive lineman Ifeadi Odenigbo got to Beathard four times on his own. The senior quarterback was also picked off by freshman Trae Williams with Iowa down 38-31 with 1:05 to go in the game.
That interception sealed the loss for the Hawkeyes. It was only Beathard’s second of the 2016 season.
As a unit, Iowa’s offense has been rather average so far this season, though, something that definitely has played into the Hawkeyes’ sub-par start. The Hawkeyes are sixth in the Big Ten in points per game (30.6) and 13th out of 14 in total offense with just 341.6 yards per game. To put those numbers in context consider that Ohio State is No. 1 in the Big Ten, scoring 57 points per game while putting up 573.6 yards per game.
Iowa’s rushing attack has also been very average so far this season, which is somewhat of a surprise considering the excellent one-two punch of Daniels Jr. and Wadley. As a unit, the Hawkeyes are only rushing for 143.20 yards per game, which is good for 11th in the Big Ten. Again, for scale, Ohio State leads the Big Ten in rush yards per game with 332.
The Hawkeyes have also been rather average defensively, checking in at No. 7 in total yards given up per game with 364.6. Iowa is third in passing defense, giving up only 181.8 yards per game through the air, but 11th in rushing defense (182.80 rush yards per game).
Average is probably the best way to describe this Iowa team in 2016. The Hawkeyes are good enough to win some games they should, but have struggled enough to lose some games they shouldn’t have.
Unfortunatly, average is well below what the expectations were for Iowa heading into this season and considering those expectations, it almost feels like all the air has been let out of the balloon in Iowa City before we’ve even hit mid-October. It almost feels like the season is over.
With games against Wisconsin, Michigan and Nebraska still looming along with tough road contests at Minnesota, Purdue and Penn State, it’s hard not to feel discouraged about Iowa’s chances of finding much more success this season.
“Big picture wise, we have three games until our bye week and then another four, so we’ve still got seven football games, and there’s a lot of football ahead,” Kirk Ferentz said after the Northwestern loss, trying to put an optimistic spin on the rest of the season.
“But what’s really important is what we do, and what we do to correct problems and issues. You’re going to have them after wins and losses. We’re going to have to do it faster, work on it faster and get there faster because we’re going to play another good football team next week.”
Unfortunately for Ferentz, optimism has abandoned this 2016 team. The Hawkeyes were on the wrong side of history against NDSU and were underwhelming in the next two matchups. This is a team that has the players to put up a competitive season, but it was almost as if the air was taken out of the sails once Iowa dropped out of the Top 25.
That’s not a good look for a coach — Ferentz — who was just given a huge contract extension. He won a ton of fans (back) over with last season’s 12-2 season, but it’s not that hard to forget that apathy pervaded Iowa City before 2015’s outburst. Ferentz entered 2015 firmly on the hot seat after going 4-8, 8-5 and 7-6 in 2012, 2013 and 2014 respectively. Dig back a little deeper and Ferentz put up records of 8-5 and 7-6 after an 11-2 burst and Orange Bowl title in 2009.
Average. That once again defines this Iowa team and it once again falls well below the expectations.
Will Iowa end up bowl eligible? Probably. Will they sniff the Big Ten West title? It’s unlikely.
Don’t even think about the CFP. That ship sailed when NDSU kicker Cam Pedersen kicked himself into college football lore.
NDSU forged a lasting memory in 2016. Iowa is already at a point where it would like to forget this season ever began.