Howe on the Hawkeyes

Senior Writer Rob Howe examines the state of the Hawkeyes after three weeks of non-conference play as the Big Ten arrives. Parallels exist between this year's team and Hawkeye squads of recent vintage, but no one knows if things will iron themselves out in time to challenge for a third league crown in four years.

A lot of the Iowa players were telling the media that things were fine following Saturday's 45-21 win against UNI. It almost was as if they were trying to convince themselves they're OK instead of exuding confidence.

Kirk Ferentz wasn't exactly floating on air, either. The coach showed concern and worry as he hasn't in recent memory.

We all can see the turnovers and penalties, problems that need solving. The fact that this team lacks crispness and consistency should be more troubling.

So, does the solution lie in improved effort, technical soundness, mental toughness, or chemistry?

"It's all of those things," Iowa Tight End Scott Chandler said. "As a group, we can watch more tape. We can always try to know what we're doing better out on the field. We can always go out in practice and run full speed on Tuesday and Wednesday. Those are our big days of practice."

Chandler said the Iowa offense practiced poorly in preparation for Northern Iowa. That almost seemed baffling considering what happened at Iowa State Sept. 10.

"We feel good about our team right now, but we're still looking for our identity," Iowa Running Back Albert Young said.

The young man makes a great point. What does this team hang its collective hat on? The offense played poorly at Iowa State, the defense looked soft against Northern Iowa.

Listen, this is by no means a call to panic. But there should be reason for concern. We all hope the wrinkles work themselves out, and the Hawkeyes roll into October and November as they have the last three seasons.

"The concern now is not so much young guys making mistakes," Iowa Center Brian Ferentz said. "Young guys make mistakes. But we have veteran players that aren't playing our best football. That's more upsetting than maybe the young guys making a few mistakes.

"It's surprising and concerning. No one is exempt; myself, Chad (Greenway), Abdul (Hodge), Drew (Tate). But we need to develop a sense of urgency. Not to take anything away from UNI or Ball State, but Ohio State is a pretty damn good football team."

Fans should be confident that this team will improve as the season advances. But will it happen fast enough? This year's schedule does not break in the Hawkeyes' favor.

Iowa travels to Ohio State on Saturday. The Hawkeyes will be seeking their first victory in Columbus since 1991, when they came away with a 16-9 triumph during the first Bush Administration.

Illinois comes to town the next week. Iowa should break the record for consecutive wins (21) at Kinnick. However, the next week holds in store a trip to West Lafayette, a place where the Hawkeyes also haven't won since '91.

Ohio State and Purdue are the only Big Ten location at which Kirk Ferentz has not tasted victory as a head coach.

"It's too early to tell (if Iowa will challenge for its third Big Ten title in four years)," Greenway said. "Our schedule is harder than in the past because we have really difficult road games. Purdue and Ohio State, those places are almost impossible to win at.

"This is a different team. This is a different year. As seniors, we need to take this thing and take it over and kind of do our own thing with it and keep pushing these guys and hopefully we can have the same result as we had in the past. But it's not going to happen because it's happened before."

In recent years, the strong senior leadership cup has spilled over. A dominating, veteran offensive line paved the way in '02. Robert Gallery, Bob Sanders and Nate Kaeding thrived in the roll in '03. The 2004 defensive line pulled the horses together.

Seniors like Brian Ferentz, Greenway, Hodge, Ed Hinkel and Clinton Solomon need to impress and teach the inexperienced Hawkeyes that progress arises from hard work. That's how they'll be judged in the end.

"We have a saying that young guys don't know what they don't know, which is a great statement," Brian Ferentz said. "The only way that you learn is by experience. We can give them an idea. But you don't know what you don't know. Fortunately it's fine not to know what you don't know because you're not going to know until you know. I sound like Yogi Berra."

Got it?

Again, will the necessary improvement happen in time? If you're 1-2 in the Big Ten leaving West Lafayette, does that affect the psyche of a team with fresh faces in a lot of places? That's putting the cart before the horse with a program that takes things week to week, but it's also being realistic.

"(Improvement is) a big part of our program," sophomore defensive end Bryan Mattison said. "You've got to continue to get better every week; no matter who you play or who you win or lose to. That's the thing that the coaches drill into our system. It seems to work, so we don't question it."

It has to happen fast. But it has happened in the past.

People seem to forget that the '02 Hawkeyes faced similar questions heading into the Big Ten slate. They had dropped a heartbreaker to Iowa State and won three other non-conference games that left questions unanswered. They knocked off Penn State in overtime, pulled out a nail biter against Purdue and rolled to an 8-0 mark.

"I would compare this team to the 2002 team," Brian Ferentz said. "It doesn't mean we're going to have that kind of success. It only means that coming out of non-conference, I'm not sure of we knew what we had that year. We knew we had some potential. I don't think we knew that we had that kind of football team that was going to win football games on a consistent basis. I don't know if we're in the same situation right now, but I think it's the same type of situation where we're not exactly sure what we have."

The biggest difference between this year and '02 comes in the form of expectations. The '02 team wasn't living in the shadows of recent success. It was hungry. The team was still searching for that hunger as of Saturday.

Iowa has shined in spots this year. A team that finished second to last in the nation in rushing a year ago, woke up Sunday morning at No. 26 nationally (215.0 yards per game). An inexperienced defensive line has shown flashes of ability, but still needs to get stronger up the middle.

"We know we're 2-1," Brian Ferentz said. "We know that we have a running game. I think that's safe to say. It's encouraging.

"I think we know that we can be explosive offensively, but we can also do some pretty boneheaded things on both sides of the ball. That's what we know right now. Hopefully we know more by the time we get on the plane on Friday to Columbus."

They need to.

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