IOWA CITY, Iowa - The moral victory card was presented to several Iowa players in Saturday's post-game press conference. To their credit, they seethed at the suggestion.
They played their hearts out for three hours to win. To propose any other result wax acceptable should have been met with disdain.
The 26-24 loss to Wisconsin came with no parting gifts or pats on the back. A nice effort, a lot of heart and no quit, for sure, but no silver linings shone through.
Instead of competing for a Big Ten West Division championship Friday when Nebraska comes to town, the Hawkeyes will attempt to match last season's regular season record win total of eight. The Huskers would their first triumph against an FBS opponent with a winning record this fall. Their four conference victories are versus teams with a combined mark of 6-22 in the league.
Iowa was presented with a chance to rise above being an also-ran squad in facing first-place Wisconsin. The Hawkeyes entrenched themselves in being average.
The Badgers will take on up-start Minnesota next week in Madison for the division crown and a chance to play Ohio State in the Dec. 6 Big Ten Championship game in Indianapolis. Wisconsin and the Golden Gophers still matter on the national landscape. People care about who wins this league even if it's not the almighty SEC.
Sure, it will be nice to beat rival Nebraska for a second year in a row. It's still a national brand, sort of. It's an embattled one coming into Kinnick Stadium amid turmoil following two losses in a row and its own irrelevancy.
The Huskers are falling short of unrealistic expectations of a fan base thinking they're still among the nation's elite. Well, 1994 is on the line informing you it's been 20 years since the glory days.
But, really, Nebraska's troubles don't, and shouldn't, mean anything to Iowa fans. That things aren't rosy at Michigan or Florida or some other high-powered program down on its luck impacts nothing in Iowa City. Yes, everyone suffers through speed bumps. Understood.
That shouldn't ease the pain of what happened Saturday to the Hawkeyes and their fan base. For the 10th year in a row, a decade, they'll play their regular-season finale without a championship on the line.
Well, it's only little old Iowa, the school with the second smallest state population among Big Ten members. Nebraska, the smallest, doesn't have a Nebraska State to contend with. The Hawkeyes must clear more hurdles than their brethren to finish on top.
Sorry, that reasoning is tired. Realists understand their are challenges and don't expect a 10-year run of titles. One a decade is not too much to ask, however.
The program enjoys excellent resources thanks to a rabid fan base that allows the head coach to be the ninth highest paid among his peers on a national basis. The latest USA Today figures show that the athletic department budget ranks 11th in the country.
The players hold responsibility in coming up short. They'll visualize missed opportunities Saturday for the rest of their lives. Dropped passes, missed blocks, slipped tackles and blown assignments they can't get back.
The coaches are more culpable than the student-athletes. They're paid to recruit and develop their pupils into a championship outfit. The players come and go, but they're a constant.
And the most constant, constant is Kirk Ferentz, the head coach for the last 16 seasons. He's' still searching for his first title since '04, when he won his second in six years.
Asked if Saturday's close loss that eliminated his team from title contention would be harder to get over than any other setback, Ferentz retreated into his comfort zone of coach speak.
"No matter what it is, two points or more than that, you have to get back up on your feet the next day and get going again. It's going to be really important this week just because of the short week here," he said.
Ferentz and his guys understood what was on the line Saturday. It showed all over their faces after the the game in the devastation of the result.
Ferentz is right. The staff needs to prepare the team. Losing to Nebraska and being stuck on seven wins against a very manageable schedule would disappoint a lot of people who follow the program.
For quite a few other fans, their dreams died Saturday. Without a championship, the season fell short. And it didn't even reach the final week.
That goal was realistic as we saw Saturday against a Wisconsin team that moved to 6-1 in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes weren't outclassed. They lost to a better team.
Ferentz is a good man and a good coach. He doesn't deserve to be run out of town with pitchforks and burning torches.
That said, fans can expect more, like a championship once a decade. Even if Mother Theresa, Gandhi and the Dalai Lama were in charge of the sidelines, they'd be open to criticism after 10 years of coming up empty.
Perspective is a good thing. The world is not over with Saturday's loss. Football is a distraction from everyday life, be it working a 9 to 5, battling a disease or fighting a war.
Still, it means something to a lot of folks who support a program, helping it enjoy state of the art facilities and coaching salaries to compete with the best. They dedicate funds earned from working that 9 to 5 to see to it.
Saturday, they were punched in the gut. It followed nine years of jabs and right hooks. The cumulative effects resulting in slumping attendance the last few years.
A win against Nebraska on Friday could stem the tide to a degree. It would help the Hawkeyes achieve another good bowl game with a chance at nine wins.
Lose to the Huskers an apathy advances. That debilitating enemy of sport is lurking and more palpable following another missed opportunity on Saturday.