Howe: Hawks on Slippery Slope

It was hard to find answers after Iowa's 27-24 loss to Minnesota on Saturday. The Hawkeyes looked dazed and confused. Where they're at mentally might be the reason behind the late-season collapse as HI publisher Rob Howe explores.

MINNEAPOLIS - Amid the sea of poor execution and getting back to work clichés' delivered by his Iowa teammates, a man of few words said what need to be said.

"We lost our will to win," Adrian Clayborn said after the Hawkeyes fell, 27-24, here against lowly Minnesota on Saturday

Iowa's star defensive end spoke volumes in minimal words. He honestly expressed what he felt caused his the Hawkeyes to lose their final three games after heading into November in the heart of the Big Ten title race.

I don't blame other seniors like Ricky Stanzi, Brett Greenwood and Allen Reisner for shrugging their shoulders and toeing the company line. It's obvious that poor execution, giving up big plays and giving them up at inopportune times resulted in a 7-5 regular season. Answers aren't easy during a time like this one.

It's tough to make heads or tails of what happened to a team representing a program that gets lauded for improving as the season moves towards winter. The Hawkeyes looked poised to continue that trend heading into this month after destroying Big Ten tri-champion Michigan State (11-1), 37-7, on Halloween weekend.

Iowa can't excuse away Saturday's Golden Gophers' debacle as it being their bowl game. A road game doesn't float, either, as there were easily as many Hawkeye fans here at TCF Bank Stadium as there were from Minnesota.

The visitors looked flat from the opening whistle. Iowa fell behind 10-0. The Gophers drove down the field for a first-series touchdown and then caught Iowa on a onside kick, which they recovered and turned into three points.

Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz wasn't buying into the Gophers having two weeks to prepare as a reason for what happened to his team.

"We're all fighting the same challenges this time of year," Ferentz said. "The bottom line is they were more ready to go than we were. They got what they deserved and we got what we deserved."

Ferentz also didn't provide a definitive reason for what happened this November. He did defend this year's squad not being like the 2006 Hawkeyes, which he referred to as fat cats.

"I'm not sure I'm ready to say that right now," the coach responded when asked to offer up his side of the story from ‘10. "(Saturday) certainly was disappointing and that's where my thoughts are right now."

Ferentz appeared to be a little choked up at times during his press conference. He's been known to shed tears of joy and satisfaction. That wasn't the case on Saturday.

"We lost three straight and every one is a different story," he said. "I don't know if its gets harder to explain, but it's no easier to digest - that's for sure."

This season doesn't remind me of 2006, either. It brings recollections of 2005. The Hawkeyes were coming off the thrilling Cap 1 Bowl win against defending national champion LSU.

Iowa brought back a veteran quarterback in Drew Tate and some star NFL prospects on defense, like Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge. People seemed to overlook the losses of Matt Roth, Jonathan Babineaux and Sean Considine, much like the departure of A.J. Edds, Pat Angerer and Amari Spievey from last year's Orange Bowl winner.

The ball bounced the wrong way for that 2005 team as it did this fall. Both teams finished the regular season at 7-5. The ‘05 squad lost to Urban Meyer's Florida team in a very good Outback Bowl.

That's the way it does sometimes. The whole is sometimes not as good as the sum of the parts. And, believe me, there are plenty of good parts on this team, many of them who will play at the next level.

The next month or so of bowl prep could be crucial, however. As we said, that tough-luck, inconsistent ‘05 team morphed into the ‘06 fat cats which became the ‘07 no-bowl game squad.

It's a pretty big leap to say that Iowa is headed down that road again, but this is a pretty fragile situation here. That's not an attempt at poor-boying it, either. History supports that it is tougher for the Hawkeyes to stay high on the mountain than it is to fall and get back up.

Iowa pulled itself up after ‘07, winning its last four games of the following campaign and an Outback Bowl. That momentum helped them to a 9-0 start in ‘09, 11-2 final record, and a Top 10 national finish.

Maybe Iowa will continue this late-season collapse in the bowl game and rebound to win a Big Ten Championship next season. I wouldn't bet on it when considering what this team will lose to graduation.

I think it's more likely that Ferentz and his staff are going to have to rediscover that will to win in these players…now. The athletes also need to rally themselves and change whatever creepy culture that has seeped in this season. If not, a bowl game loss, 7-6 record and four-game skid to close ‘10 could spill into the spring, summer and next season.

Ferentz and his team can use the month to work on more than their mindset. Beyond it, discipline would be a good place to start. Missed assignments, poor tackling, special teams' gaffs and penalties need to be addressed.

Minnesota came into Saturday ranked 90th in rushing offense at 127.91, which is 10th in the Big Ten. The Gophers ran for 216 on Saturday, the most against Iowa this season. Ohio State had 158 last week.

"You see out there when we make plays its because we're playing the defense right," Clayborn said. "When guys leave their gaps, when guys are doing their own thing, that's when people get big yards on us. "

Iowa lost its tough-guy edge the way things looked here on Saturday. The Gophers looked more physical. That had to be unnerving for Ferentz.

The Iowa coach, I think, would admit to an extent that the wrong attitude infiltrated the program several years ago. He and his staff let it go for too long and it took a lot of hard work to get the right one back.

Ferentz won't change his system. He's not going for a quick fix with a trendy scheme and he won't change his coaching staff. Therefore, it's up to this group to fix what's broken.

I don't think it's trashed. I do think that everyone from the head man down to the last man on the roster needs to be held accountable.

Ferentz needs to motivate here to find that will to win. If he doesn't, this snowball has the potential to pick up speed going downhill as we've seen in the past.

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