Howe: Hawks Approaching Opportunity Correctly

Like their even-keeled coach, Kirk Ferentz, the Iowa players often downplay the hype surrounding their games. Not Tuesday. The Hawkeyes met it head on. And as HI Publisher Rob Howe writes, it's right and refreshing.

IOWA CITY, Iowa - Iowa players usually follow the lead of their head coach when downplaying hype outside of the program. Tuesday, they met it head on.

Saying Saturday's match-up with Wisconsin rates as just another game on the schedule rings hollow. The Hawkeyes know that acknowledging the enormity of it doesn't stray from their grounded approach. It's refreshing.

"If you can't get up for the biggest game that anyone here is played in so far, I don't know what you can get up for," said normally cliche'-driven running back Mark Weisman.

The West-Division leading Badgers present Iowa with an opportunity rarely seen around these parts at this time of year. A Big Ten championship remains in play for the Hawkeyes.

Head Coach Kirk Ferentz seeks his third conference crown in 16 years at the helm. It'd be his first since 2004, the year Facebook launched. We'll call it the social media drought, irony considering the head man's aversion to new-fangled inventions.

"It's definitely the biggest game that I've played in. There's a lot on the table. Everybody should be ready to go," defensive end Drew Ott said.

Wisconsin (5-1 in the league) sits one game ahead of the Hawkeyes, Minnesota and Nebraska in the wild West. If Iowa beats the Badgers and then the Huskers next week, it could win the division if the Gophers slip up in Lincoln Saturday or Nov. 29 in Madison.

In '09 and '10, the Hawkeyes stumbled in November competing for the Big Ten title. Before that, you had to reach back to '04 when they beat Wisconsin at home in the regular season finale to capture the crown.

Now, Iowa heads into Saturday's game seeking national relevance for the first time in the college careers of the players on this team. Granted, it wouldn't be in this position had the conference not gone to divisions due to expansion. But, this is the landscape today.

Win the West and a likely meeting with Ohio State awaits in the Big Ten Championship game on Dec. 6 in Indianapolis. The eyes of the college football world takes notice.

"The opportunities are there," Weisman said. "We just have to take advantage of everything we have. It's been a crazy year, up and down, but we're still in the hunt."

Two weeks ago, Minnesota throttled the Hawkeyes, 51-14, in Minneapolis. They also fell at home to two-win Iowa State and were dominated in the second half of a loss at Maryland.

At 7-3, Iowa still is looking for its first victory against an FBS program with a winning record. Meanwhile, the Badgers smashed then-No. 11 Nebraska 59-24 last Saturday in a contest that saw running back Melvin Gordon rush for a record 408 yards.

Wisconsin has tasted triumph the last five times it took the field. The Hawkeyes last won back-to-back games in September.

Tie it all together and very few outsiders see Iowa winning. Some sports books list the Badgers as 10-point favorites.

"I honestly think we play better as an underdog," strong safety Johnny Lowdermilk said. "I don't know if it's a certain mindset but I like going into the game as an underdog, going in with a chip on your shoulder and play like you have something to prove."

Ferentz teams have overcome the odds throughout his run. They've performed better with less pressure on many occasions. It occurred last year at Nebraska.

Football analysts and the betting public expect Wisconsin to roll. As Lowdermilk says, the Hawkeyes must be motivated to prove themselves.

It should be pointed out that Iowa has earned the underdog role. It's been woefully inconsistent this fall.

However, past results don't always dictate the future. You can find plenty of outcomes this season that didn't make sense based on the teams' performances leading up to them.

Northwestern serves as a great example. The Wildcats' resume reveals lopsided losses to Iowa and Nebraska and wins against Wisconsin and at Notre Dame.

Sometimes perception isn't always reality, either. We tend to overstate the dire straights of longshots.

Per a Phil Steele article published in August of '12:

From 1997-2011 there were 1,360 teams that were favored by 7.5 to 10 points and of those 1,360 teams there were 359 upsets…That means that 26.39% of the time a team was favored by 7.5 to 10 points it lost outright and that translates into 1 upset every 3.8 games.

We'll find out Saturday if the Hawkeyes buck the odds. If not, it won't because they approached things wrongly this week.

Their confidence Tuesday impresses. They're embracing. They're believing. Now, they have to prove it.

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