Howe: Hawkeye Program Mired in Mediocrity

The Iowa football regular season ended with a thud Friday as the Hawkeyes lost in overtime, 37-34, to Nebraska in the annual Heroes Game. They fell a victory short of last year's pre-bowl eight wins during a fall where expectations were high. It served as another setback for a program mired in mediocrity, writes HI Publisher Rob Howe

IOWA CITY, Iowa - Kirk Ferentz is set in his ways. He imposes a 24-hour rule, bans Twitter and chews the same gum every game.

The Iowa coach discusses things in a calculated order. He doesn't like looking too far ahead or too far behind. He reviews the season in its entirety.

Ferentz could have done that Friday. A bowl game remains for the Hawkeyes but for all intents and purposes, this campaign crashed and burned during the last eight days.

Iowa flubbed its way to a 37-34 overtime loss to Nebraska that gave a whole new meaning to Black Friday. Last week, Wisconsin left Kinnick Stadium with a 26-24 victory, eliminating the home team from Big Ten title contention for the 10th year in a row.

A season that could have reached nine wins with spot in next Saturday's conference championship game instead plummeted to 7-5. The Hawkeyes won one less regular-season game than they did last year with a much more favorable schedule.

"We lost five ballgames.  Each one is a different story.  I'm not going to sit here tonight and just dissect it.  I'll talk about today's game," Ferentz said. "But, I will say again there's no way to predict this stuff in August, how it's going to go.  You practice as well as you can, you prepare as well as you can, coach as hard, play as hard, and all I know is we came up short last week, we came up short today, against two teams I think are pretty good teams, and I think both teams competed hard last week and this week, and that's football.  The week before that we won."

That win came against Illinois, a team sitting on two Big Ten victories. Iowa finished 4-4 in the Big Ten with the triumphs coming against programs with a combined record of 6-22 in conference.

Ferentz was right. The Hawkeyes faced a lot of good teams. They just didn't beat any of them. In fact, they failed to defeat an FBS school with a winning record.

Those facts hollow out Iowa's seven wins. What's the signature victory this fall? Northwestern? Pitt? Those teams are 5-6 heading into tomorrow.

It's Ferentz's prerogative to evaluate the season after the bowl game. It just won't matter much what they do in that game, save perhaps a matchup against Bret Bielema and Arkansas in Nashville. That could slap some lipstick on the pig.

The coach talked Friday about things being hard to predict. Few people saw Minnesota playing for the division title and others didn't peg Ohio State to win the East after Braxton Miller went down, he said. He's had a history of pointing out when prognosticators get it wrong.

To the credit of Kirk Herbstreit, Tom Dienhart and a large part of the Iowa fan base, they pretty accurately called things before the season. The Hawkeyes faced a scheduled that proved favorable enough for them to capture a championship. And that remained true less than two weeks ago with Wisconsin and Nebraska coming to Kinnick.

"I've really felt like since 2001 just in broad, sweeping statements, for the most part we're going to have an opportunity to compete for the championship.  That's our goal.  We're not going to back down from that.  That would be ridiculous.  But I think as we all know, there are twists and turns that go on in any season," Ferentz said.

And when there were twists this fall, the Hawkeyes turned out on the short end. They dropped games after leading two-win Iowa State 14-3 at the half and Maryland 14-0 in the first quarter.

Then came Friday. Nebraska hobbled into Iowa City on a two-game skid and a head coach, Bo Pelini, with an uncertain future. The Huskers looked listless in falling behind 24-7 midway through the third quarter.

"We had a lot of time and I knew our kids would keep fighting," Pelini said. "You just keep playing and that's what they did."

Iowa stopped playing on offense. The game plan became conservative instead of aggressive, which made little sense in a stadium full of home fans aiding the momentum that had been built to that point.

"That's football," Ferentz said. "There's ebb and flow. You could probably ask the same thing about their offense in the first half up until that last drive (when the Huskers scored a touchdown)."

Iowa's attack ebbed a lot more than it flowed this year. Friday, it managed 24 first downs and only scored 20 points. The struggle often looks like someone trying to drag a piano through a snow drift.

The Hawkeyes had it. They reengaged the fans with the exciting second-half charge against the Badgers in an electric Kinnick environment. They led by 17 points against wounded (literally and figuratively) Nebraska and managed to snatch defeat from victory.

Technically, Iowa proved to be the lesser team Friday. The same could be said after Wisconsin. The Hawkeyes were talented enough to win both contests and that's the frustrating part.

"Seven and five, that's not acceptable for this program," linebacker Quinton Alston said. "Each of us as individuals, as competitors, that's not good enough."

Perhaps Ferentz has become a victim of his own success. He won two Big Ten titles in his first six years. Then, he rebuilt the program to go 11-2 in '09 with a BCS bowl triumph.

Things have stagnated since then. The team underachieved in '10, finishing 8-5 overall and 4-4 in conference with a roster loaded with future NFL players.

The ball continued rolling downhill with a 7-6 mark in '11 leading into a 4-8 train wreck of '12. To Ferentz and his staff's credit, they fixed the program enough to each 8-5 last year, setting up high hopes this fall for a team returning the majority of its players and tackling a light schedule.

All tolled, since the '09 run, Iowa's record sits at 34-29 overall and 19-21 in the Big Ten. Within that conference mark, there are two wins against each Michigan State and Michigan along with single victories against Penn State and Nebraska. Fans love beating those schools.

The bulk of the 19 wins have come against Purdue (three), Indiana (three), Northwestern (three), Minnesota (two) and Illinois (one), all teams that have been, for the most part, at the back end of the Big Ten standings the last five years. That inspires little public excitement.

People aren't real pumped up when you lose all four trophy games you play, as the Hawkeyes did this season. Iowa State, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Nebraska all captured the hardware, three of them doing it in Kinnick.

The Hawkeyes sold out one home game this season, against in-state rival Iowa State. They recorded no sellouts a year ago. Senior Day of '13 against Michigan saw 65,708 folks in Kinnick and there were 66, 897 Friday.

Iowa sold out 30 games in a row from Oct. 3, 2009-Nov. 10, 2012. It's had one in the last 15.

Maybe the trend means nothing. More likely, it means something.

The Hawkeyes are, at best, a mediocre football program the last five years. Average might be too kind this year considering the quality of the victories.

Ferentz will load it back up and prepare his team for a bowl. After it, he will say they had ups and down, ebbs and flows this season, and that's football.

True. But, with due credit to Herman Edwards, you play to win the game. And the head coach needs to win more to keep the wind in the sails of a passionate fan base that's betting bored.

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