Iowa CITY, Iowa - Again presented with an opportunity to show it was returning to national relevance, Iowa fell short Saturday. The 2013 Hawkeyes instead took another step in solidifying their place in the middle of the road.
Iowa is pulling itself out of the ditch in which it sat last season. It's just going to be a longer journey to contending for championships and big bowls than the fans and players may have hoped.
An electric crowd and an inspired home team began the game strong. Iowa controlled field position and clearly held the momentum against the vulnerable Badgers, who went without a first-quarter first down.
Like so many times this season, Iowa struggled with prosperity. After setting up with first downs at the Wisconsin 11 and 6 yard lines, respectively, on a pair of early drives, the Hawkeyes settled for field goals.
"When you play a team that's very tough it makes it tough on you, if you make it tougher on yourself, it's just not a good thing," Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said.
Wisconsin ended up figuring things out late in the first half. Running backs Melvin Gordon and James White each popped a 10-plus yarder before quarterback Joel Stave hit tight end Jacob Pedersen on 44-scoring pass. The Badgers took a 7-6 lead into the intermission and it was another case of what-could-have-been for Iowa.
Saturday marked the first time this season that the Hawkeyes trailed at halftime. They managed to lose three of those previous contests, all against teams ranked in the AP Top 25 this weekend. The inability to come back in the second half against the Badgers meant Iowa stood at 0-4 against rated teams this fall.
There's a few ways to view Iowa's position. Its four losses are to teams with a combined record of 32-3. The five teams it's beaten are 16-26 (pending a few outcomes on Saturday).
To arrive at a conclusion for the above numbers we turn to the famous words of Dennis Green (kind of) - the Hawkeyes are who we think they are - an average football team.
The realization is tough to swallow for Iowa and its fans. You can see the ability to be more in flashes. Part of being above average includes being consistent, which the Hawkeyes are not.
They tease. We remember Ohio State being on its heels in The Shoe and two quick scores to end the first half against Michigan State eventually be for naught. Those two schools and Wisconsin represent the class of the conference.
The Big Ten's top trio didn't outclass Iowa but found a way to win. And, as Herman Edwards said, that's why you play the game.
We'll bring in Bill Parcells to help us further figure out Iowa's lot. The Hawkeyes are what their record says they are not what might have been.
Ferentz and Linebacker Christian Kirksey said on Saturday that the team is close and that it will keep fighting. It's been a common refrain throughout a season with only three games remaining.
Iowa conceivably could win out. Hapless Purdue awaits it in West Lafayette next week followed by a bye and two games against big name Big Ten teams in Michigan and Nebraska that are currently in a tailspin.
That's what the Hawkeyes need to do now to avoid remaining a middling program. It didn't have to be this way. It just is.
This is Iowa. The margin for error is razor thin. The really good Hawkeye teams find a way to win the close games against good squads. The ones that don't, end up average or worse.