Howe: Hawks Can Be Relevant or Also-Ran

Iowa rolled over another inferior opponent on Saturday with a 30-14 win at Illinois. The patsies are off the schedule now and it's up to the Hawkeyes to show that they're the team they've told us all along they think they could be.

CHAMPAIGN, IL - Now, we'll see what Iowa is made of. No more Sisters-of-the-Poor match-ups remain on the schedule.

The Hawkeyes have reached crunch time, the brass ring within reach. They've arrived here with doubt but can't be denied their position.

Iowa plays host to Big Ten West Division heavyweights Wisconsin and Nebraska the next two weeks, fate in its hands. Win two and a strong chance exists a conference trophy comes to Iowa City for the first time since 2004.

The Hawkeyes can create national noise after pulling away from lowly Illinois here at Memorial Stadium for a 30-14 win. While beating the alternative, they really didn't answer the question everyone has been wondering all fall - How good is this team?

"This is what we wanted," sophomore cornerback Greg Mabin said. "We wanted to control our own destiny. We want to go out there and show what we can do as a team, like how we've been capable of playing all season long."

Iowa ran up and down the field against a bad Illini team. Illinois dropped to 1-5 in the Big Ten and its win against Minnesota earlier this season defines aberration. Purdue left here with a victory.

Praise the Hawkeyes for bouncing back from the 51-14 massacre in Minneapolis a week ago. That spoke to solid character. They certainly could have shriveled up after that beating.

Instead, they stomped a team they should have stomped. They won for a seventh time, none of those victories coming against anyone notable. They haven't beaten an FBS team with a winning record.

Most local and national analysts will pick the Badgers to meet Ohio State in the Big Ten title game next month. Iowa is nestled into its preferred role as underdog with the only pressure coming from within.

It's been a strange journey to relevance entering these final two weeks. Confounding losses against two-win Iowa State, Maryland and Minnesota created unrest in a growing portion of the fan base.

The doubters remain. They're not going anywhere. They've obtained a season's worth of evidence making it hard to imagine the Hawkeyes winning out.

For Iowa, the perception of who it is should rings hollow. The story is not over. The coaches focus on devising ways to best position their players, who line up against a pair of teams wearing red.

"It's going to be a dogfight," tight end Ray Hamilton said. "We play two damn good football teams and we know it. There's a lot on the line. This is what you play for. You play to put yourself in position for big names in November and that's what we've done."

Wisconsin comes to Kinnick Stadium first. The Badgers sit atop the West at 5-1 after thumping Nebraska Saturday in Madison. They're the bench mark of the division right now and showed that last year with a dominating triumph in Iowa City a year ago.

"We're going to be involved in a big game next week and that's why you come to a school like Iowa," strong safety Johnny Lowdermilk said. "It will be a test for us physically and I think we'll be up for it."

The Hawkeyes must prove they can match up with the Big Ten's beefiest, something they failed to do at Minnesota. You don't beat Wisconsin unless you win in the trenches.

Badgers running back Melvin Gordon ranks among the best in the game, if not at the top. He'll challenge an Iowa defense susceptible to speed, particularly on the edge, something the teams it beat couldn't do.

It matters not now. Stop Gordon and memories of C.J. Brown and David Cobb fade away.

You never like to overemphasize the importance of a game or two as they pertain to the big picture. But there's no way to over blow this position.

A decade has passed since Iowa won its last Big Ten hardware. And opportunities have been few and far between.

You can't let these chances slip through your fingers. All of Hawkeye Nation is standing behind you with 70,000 of them cheering you on with gusto.

"It's good," defensive tackle Louis Trinca-Pasat said. "We get to play in front of our home fans the last two games. The least you can do is just go out and play hard. We're going to prepare more and just keep our heads straight and focused. If we do that, we'll have a good chance."

The Hawkeyes determine who they are now. They can build from the 4-8 in '12 to the 8-5 and January bowl last year to being champions this fall. Or, they can be just another team that fell short.

It all comes down to this. We're about to finally find out who these guys are - relevant or also-rans.

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