Howe: Hawkeyes Rediscover Right Formula

They say the Wisconsin loss didn't elicit drastic changes. The Hawkeyes just went back to work on getting better. The Badgers did open up Iowa's eyes to the results of a lack of focus. It hopes it remains for the stretch run.

IOWA CITY, Ia. - If there was any panic in the Iowa football camp this week, it was gone by Saturday. If there were any Hawkeyes doubting themselves, they weren't going to admit it.

It apparently was business as usual in preparation for No. 5 Michigan State. A circle-the-wagons meeting was unnecessary after last week's crushing 31-30 here to Wisconsin.

I tried. I asked Adrian Clayborn and Ricky Stanzi. Neither captain would cop to the seniors rattling some cages or screaming coaches in practice.

I'm sure the whip was cracked when needed at the football complex this week. I don't think it was anything drastic or out of the ordinary.

It should encourage Iowa fans going forward. No rah-rah motivation means this team is focused on looking ahead and not behind it. They talk about not letting one loss beat them twice and they didn't.

A week after allowing a host of mental mistakes cost it in the loss to the Badgers, Iowa dismantled the Spartans, 37-6. The Hawkeyes jumped out to a 17-0 lead after one quarter and took a 30-0 advantage into halftime. It never was a game.

Iowa (6-2 overall, 3-1 Big Ten) could have felt sorry for itself. It's two losses had come by a combined eight points. In both contests, the Hawkeyes committed often inexcusable mistakes.

"Like the coaches said inside (the locker room), if we play the way we're supposed to play, it's hard to beat us," Clayborn said.

While the fans pined away about the Wisconsin loss until late this week, the Hawkeyes moved forward. They didn't play the "what if" game.

But, man, what if? Iowa cleans up special teams mistakes and plays tighter against Arizona and Wisconsin and we could be talking about national title. It didn't and we're not.

What we saw on Saturday is that Iowa can be a very, very good team. As Clayborn said, when they're on the top of their game, the Hawkeyes can beat anyone in the country. But I think they now realize that they're also capable of losing to a lot of teams on any given Saturday, including their next two opponents - Indiana and Northwestern.

Iowa plays those games on the road before hosting Ohio State. The Hawkeyes finish up at Minnesota on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

If Iowa really did learn a lesson from Wisconsin, it should win the three road games. It's more talented than those opponents. Ohio State? It's a toss-up game.

The Hawkeyes were saying the right things in Saturday's post-game meeting with the media. Clayborn was asked about remaining in the Rose Bowl picture with the win against Michigan State.

"I'm really not thinking anything about that," he said. "That's for you guys think about."

I heard reporters who cover the Spartans say that Iowa is the best team in the Big Ten. Saturday's result could lead someone to say that. I think Wisconsin is darn tough after seeing the Badgers put up 31 on the Hawkeye defense.

The truth is that there is more parity in the Big Ten than I can remember for some time. I think you can toss Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Iowa in a hat as we sit here tonight.

Could Iowa be unbeaten? Yes. Should Iowa be unbeaten? No. You are what your record says you are.

"I'm not into saying who is better and who is not," Iowa Quarterback Rick Stanzi said. "We let that stuff figure itself out at the end of the season. We're just trying to play our best football each week."

We hear that every time we talk to Stanzi and his teammates. As a reporters, it can be tiring and cliché. But it's how you have to operate to be successful in college football.

I'm sure it wasn't an easy week for the players as they walked around campus. They and their coaches heard a lot of criticism for the Wisconsin bungles. A lot of the experts felt Iowa would be emotionally spent after last week and ready to fold up the tents.

"We can't really listen to that stuff on the outside," Stanzi said. "It doesn't do anything for us if we win or lose. Our focus has to be on improving."

That's not to say that the Wisconsin game didn't get the Hawkeyes' attention. It served as a wake-up call that the Rose Bowl dream was down to no margin for error.

"Teams lose, but the way we let it slip away; the way we messed up on the details, that motivated us to focus even more this week," Clayborn admitted.

The Iowa defense had allowed a combined 59 points the last two weeks. Saturday, the unit held the Spartans to 6 points and 31 yards on 20 rushing attempts. They had been averaging 193.5 a game.

Iowa performed that well despite starting a true freshman, James Morris, at middle linebacker and red shirt freshman Shane DiBona at weak side linebacker. Credit the kids. Credit the leaders on the team for preparing them.

"Our veterans have given us good leadership all season long," Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. "They did a great job this week and then the young guys step up and do some nice things, too."

So, is Iowa back on track? Are these the Hawkeyes some people expected when they opened the season as a dark horse national title contender? Answer - we don't know.

Iowa is capable of tripping up again. As good as the special teams looked on Saturday, they're still one week removed from a debacle.

I am confident that the Hawkeyes finally understand what it takes to win, though. And if they forget, they can pop in the Arizona and Wisconsin tapes to be instantly reminded.

That's the pitfall for many talented teams across the country that underachieve each year - never learning what it takes to win. The Hawkeyes leave here Saturday night on a high one week after experiencing a punch to the gut.

"I don't ever want to feel that again," Clayborn said. "This game gives us a boost going into next week and everybody has their head back up."

And from that vantage point, they all can clearly see what it takes to reach their potential.

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