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Bryce Miller: Hawkeyes’ loss is inexcusable

[ 0 ] August 31, 2013 |

IOWA CITY, Ia. — There’s no way to sugar-coat the painful, deflating, full-Technicolor reality of Iowa’s loss Saturday to Northern Illinois.

When a team is trying to jam a four-win season as far into the distance as possible …

When a six-game losing streak is on the verge of growing to seven …

When the confidence of a program’s fan base is wheezing like a marathon runner with a bone-dry gas tank … winning is the only antidote for all that ails.

Mission Accomplished for the Hawkeyes at Kinnick Stadium required a one-letter answer: W. That’s it. A win. That’s all.

It didn’t happen. And it felt inexcusable.

No matter the spin anyone decked in black and gold tried to slather across it to buoy confidence, it’s impossible to claim differently.

When safety Jimmie Ward stepped in front of a pass from Iowa’s Jake Rudock with too much air under it for an interception in Iowa territory with 1:17 left to play, the Huskies’ 30-27 stunner was simply a matter of lining up the field-goal unit.

Evaluating the Hawkeyes’ loss was a simple, win-loss exercise. Iowa failed — stunningly, for the seventh time in a row. The last time Iowa dropped that many in a row pre-Ferentz flips the calendar all the way back to 1978.

“It’s definitely frustrating,” said running back Mark Weisman. “We’ve worked so hard since the end of last season. If a loss doesn’t hurt, you’re not invested enough.”

More after the video …

In mid-June, some Polk County columnist wrote that the last day in August would present a must-win scenario for the Hawkeyes, as odd as that sounds with 11 more games left on the schedule. In terms of stalled momentum and program perception, though, it loomed large long before the last winter snow melt.

Let’s be clear: Northern Illinois, an Orange Bowl team a season ago with Heisman Trophy contender Jordan Lynch at quarterback, is nobody’s slouch — tabbed the No. 24 team preseason by Sports Illustrated.

A Big Ten team needs to beat a Mid-American Conference team on its home field, though. Period. End of discussion.

When the Hawkeyes eeked out an 18-17, neutral-field win over Northern Illinois a season ago along the shores of Lake Michigan, the location and youthful roster made it tough to declare falling skies.

This time, however, Iowa rattled off 17 unanswered points with chances to tack on more. Momentum had swung. A win, more needed than perhaps any in decades, rested squarely in both hands.

If Iowa had planted cleats firmly on the Huskies’ throats, at least two more likely non-conference wins on the horizon (Missouri State, Western Michigan) likely would have spelled H-A-L-F-W-A-Y-T-O-B-O-W-L a mere 60 minutes into the season.

Does this mean Iowa’s season is over? Of course not. When the fall leaves have yet to drop, too many dizzying twists and turns remain.

Iowa, though, seriously doused and dented chances of building something special before fans had barely warmed stadium seats. For context: No Iowa team since 1988 has lost the season opener and reached a bowl game.

The standard of progress is and always will be the postseason — and it just got miles more difficult.

Leading into the game, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz answered must-win talk by saying “to portray this as the Normandy Invasion is not quite that level of importance,” but it felt large in all the ways the college football world turns.

Over and over, Northern Illinois — Heisman Trophy quarterback candidate or not — too easily found open green space behind Iowa’s defensive backs. When everyone wearing home shoulder pads was caught snoozing on a third-quarter fake punt, crowd groans filled the stadium.

Ferentz clearly groaned, too, explaining after the game that his team had reasons aplenty to keep an eye out.

“Was it a surprise?” he said. “No.”

The early days of college football seasons chew up and spit out the greedy, distracted or overconfident. Just ask Kansas State.

Iowa, for its part, stumbled in a troubling way. For a small mountain of reasons, Iowa needed this.

Did the game provided optimism beyond the scoreboard? Sure.

On a day when Lynch, Chuck Long and Randy Duncan patrolled the stadium, game-clock rookie Rudock might have been the fourth-best quarterback in the building — at best. He managed the game, though, made enough big throws.

Deep balls to Damond Powell and Jordan Cotton — plays that seemed all but extinct in 2012 — provided spark and showed Rudock possessed more poise at times than someone without a Division I snap ever should.

The end-game interception, however, undoubtedly will gnaw at the young quarterback well down the road.

“Probably one we’d like to have back,” Ferentz said, “but that’s football.”

More to like about Iowa: The Hawkeyes picked up the pace, pulled the trigger on more shots downfield and provided glimpses of sharper offensive days when Weisman and Damon Bullock will wear down defenses.

All that mattered in this game, though, was a “W.”

Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey summed up toppling a Big Ten team on the road with a nod to heads and hearts more than buckled chin-straps.

“Our guys just believe,” he said.

Right now, Iowa fans could use a dose of that. No matter how anyone breaks down the film or massages the message, this missed chance raised more questions than existed before kickoff.

And let’s be honest. In Iowa’s case, there already were plenty.

Bryce Miller can be reached at 515-284-8288 or brmiller@dmreg.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Bryce_A_Miller

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football

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