But for a team coming off a 2-10 season and going up against their heavily favored in-state rival, a close loss may even be a confidence builder for the Cyclones. That wasn't the message being sent from inside the opposing pink locker rooms of Kinnick, however.
Like the one in 1998, this ISU team came to Iowa City expecting nothing less than victory.
"I don't think we take much from this game, other than the fact that we didn't make enough plays to win," said redshirt freshman quarterback Bret Meyer, who was making his second career start. "Just because you're picked to lose by a lot of points, and you don't lose by that many, it doesn't mean you take anything from it. We put ourselves in position to win this game if we would have made more plays."
Regardless, a young inexperienced team showed a lot to its fans. When Iowa opened its lead to 17-3 early in the second half, thanks to a Kyle Schlicher field goal, the Cyclones didn't fold up their tent. Instead, the defense dug in and Todd Blythe pulled down a huge touchdown catch later in the session.
Thanks to its stout defensive front, ISU's offense had more than a few opportunities late in the game. But missed field goals, the lack of a running game, and some inconsistency in the passing game ultimately sent the Cyclones to their second consecutive loss in the series.
"I was proud of our team," said McCarney. "We didn't make enough plays when we had the opportunity to. Iowa made key plays. But watching from the sidelines, there didn't appear to be any physical mismatch. We'll have a lot of things to pull from this game and build on."
Much of what the Cyclones will build on is on the defensive side of the ball. After holding Northern Iowa to 99 total yards last weekend, ISU surrendered 305 against a Big 10 foe.
Tailback Jermelle Lewis was held in check throughout the first 59-plus minutes before breaking loose on a 34-yard run in the final game-sealing drive. First-year starting quarterback Drew Tate did manage to complete 16-of-22 passes, but was sacked four times and never got into much of a rhythm in the second half.
Even more encouraging for the Cyclone defense was that they did so without two starters for much of the game. Defensive end Cephus Johnson did not play due to injury, and interior lineman Brent Curvey left in the middle of the game.
"We showed signs today of being a real good team," said defensive lineman Nick Leaders. "I think we're confident. Last week against UNI we played well and knew it, but people were saying it was against a Division I-AA program. So we went up against Iowa and had something to prove. We played well for the most part, but let them out of the gate twice and that cost us."
What also cost the Cyclones was disastrous field goal kicking, which put a damper on what was otherwise a stellar day from the special teams. Starting again in place of Tony Yelk, freshman Brian Jansen made just one of his four attempts, missing on attempts of 30, 31, and 46 yards.
Jansen's failed attempts also served as momentum killers for a Cyclone offense that could not sustain it. All three of the attempts came on drives that started with great field position – something ISU didn't always have on Saturday.
"We weren't able to make plays when we had the opportunity," McCarney said. "We missed three field goals. When you're grinding, fighting, scratching to get yardage and first downs, you've got to come away with points. I was real disappointed we weren't able to do that."
The Cyclones got a rare big play late in the game with Flynn's touchdown pass to Blythe. After a defensive stop, Flynn would get the opportunity to at least tie it in the waning moments. However, that momentum seemed to die when the backup quarterback left the game after being hit by an Iowa defender.
"We did some good things moving the ball and Austin made a beautiful play on the touchdown pass to Todd Blythe," McCarney said. "(Flynn) does have some experience, so we'd hope he has some moxie and could draw from that. I still think we have two quarterbacks we can win with, and we'll continue to play them both."
Meyer completed 11-of-21 passes for 100 yards, while Flynn hooked up on 4-of-9 for 70. Another encouraging sight was that neither signal-caller turned the ball over.
Iowa gained momentum early in the game when Albert Young plunged into the end zone for a one-yard touchdown, capping a six-play drive that lasted just under two minutes.
But while the Cyclone defense would put the clamps on Iowa for a while, their offense struggled putting points on the board. Jansen missed the first of his three field goals midway through the opening quarter, then hit a 41-yarder a few minutes later.
Both offenses were in neutral throughout much of the second quarter, before Tate hooked up with a diving Ed Hinkel for a 29-yard touchdown.
"It was a tremendous play and great execution on their part," McCarney said. "Hinkel makes a great catch, and it was a beautiful throw-and-catch. It's smart. That's good coaching. Our starter Ellis (Hobbs) is out, and we've got a backup in there. They went right after him and made an excellent play."
Iowa tacked on a 39-yard field goal from Schlicher early in the third quarter, and looked to have gained control of the game. But the defense again came up big. Hobbs and Tyson Smith sacked Tate in a drive late in the quarter. After a punt, Flynn entered the game and gave the offense a spark.
"It was a little momentum," Smith said, referring to the series of events. "But we didn't make enough plays during the whole game. It doesn't really matter what quarter it was. We needed to take advantage of a lot more things."
ISU will get the chance to do that next Saturday when it returns home to face Northern Illinois at Jack Trice Stadium. Kick-off is set for 11:30 a.m.