WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Iowa became bowl-eligible Saturday, which sure beats the alternative.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever had a longer holiday break,” Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz said Saturday after a businesslike 38-14 victory over Purdue. “You can only sit in front of the fireplace so long.”
A bowl-free 4-8 season leads to a lot of chestnuts roasting over an open fire, that’s for sure. It turns up the heat on the old ball coach, too.
Iowa’s sixth victory of the season Saturday all but guaranteed a bowl trip, the 11th in the Ferentz era. It also made a miserable 2012 season look more like a fluke than a trend.
But this is not a program that has turned the corner. Not yet. There’s more work to be done before the Hawkeyes can move out of the average Big Ten neighborhood they reside in now. Beat Michigan at home on Nov. 23, or win at Nebraska on Nov. 29, and you can call the moving van.
“We talk big picture very briefly on Sundays,” Ferentz said. “And the big picture is we had three games, and we felt like we had a chance to win all three if we played better. We’ve got to play our best football. That’s the only chance we’ll have.”
One down, a shot at Maize-and-Blue and Big Red to go. A win against either Michigan or Nebraska, two of college football’s biggest brands but hardly invincible opponents, would guarantee a winning season. It would guarantee no worse than a 4-4 record in conference play, when many preseason prognosticators thought the Hawkeyes would win one.
It would be the candle, frankly, on an overachieving season. Just before the season kicked off, I said a victory in the opener against Northern Illinois was a must-win for Iowa’s bowl chances. Humble pie came Saturday.
“Obviously, it’s not our endgame, but that’s one nice by-product of winning,” Ferentz said of becoming bowl-eligible. “It’s something we don’t take for granted. All you have to do is look back to last year. So it’s great to get that accomplished.”
Iowa athletic director Gary Barta has said numerous times that with 12 regular-season games on the schedule, it should take seven wins to become bowl eligible. He said after Saturday’s game he still believes that.
“There’s tremendous value in going to a bowl,” Barta said after the game. “My point is if the bowl bar is set at seven, I’d like that to be the case. Right now, in 2013, it’s set at six. I’ve always said being bowl-eligible, or going to a bowl, is very valuable to a team.”
A bowl is invaluable for the long-term success of a program. The pre-bowl practices allow another month to develop players of the future. There are short-term benefits, too.
“The best part about it is you get to keep your team together for another month, and you always have a chance to compete against a good opponent,” Ferentz said.
Michigan humbled the Hawkeyes 42-17 last season in Ann Arbor. That’s something I’m sure Ferentz will bring up a time or 10 between now and kickoff.
“We didn’t come to play (vs. the Wolverines),” offensive tackle Brett Van Sloten said. “They did. We got what we deserved.”
That loss was near the end of the Hawkeyes’ six-game free fall to end 2012. Now, a win against Michigan would be the sign of a program’s restored health and well-being.
“This is a stepping stone,” Van Sloten said. “We’re not where we want to be. Six stones is a milestone that you want to get to at the Division I level. It is a step in the right direction.”
The Michigan game will be senior day, Van Sloten’s last game at Kinnick Stadium. It will also be the last one for linebacker James Morris, who made the short drive from Solon to Iowa City and has been in the defensive mix since his freshman season.
The pressure of becoming bowl-eligible is gone. Which, Morris succinctly pointed out, brings more pressure. The pressure that comes with success.
“The more games you can win, that makes the next game that much more important, because you’re playing for more,” Morris said. “There’s more at stake.”
And after a lost 2012 season, who doesn’t want to play in November with enough pressure to crack chestnuts?
Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year and covers Hawkeye football and basketball for the Register. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football