One of the main points of emphasis during Iowa's bye week practices was working on improving the kick return unit. The Hawkeyes currently rank last in the Big Ten in that category at 13.1 yards per return. They're the only team in the league not to average at least 20 YPR.
"The only area (of the team) we are kind of muddling around (with personnel and philosophy) in is our kickoff return area," Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. "I don't think we have solved that. There were some things on tape that looked better, but we are not out of the woods yet. That is our challenge now. We have to get better."
If you thought the Big Ten ranking looked bad, understand that Iowa ranks dead last in Division I-A football at 13.1 YPR. The Hawkeyes (18.34) ranked 95th last season, 34th in 2003 (22.18) and first in '02 (25.11). The numbers have headed in the wrong direction.
"Everybody (needs improvement in) setting up their blocks better," return man and starting running back Albert Young said. "The returners, us back there, we have to hit it harder. It's as simple as that. It's a complete team effort. We need to get our offense started passed the 20(-yard line)."
Taking out the Ball State game, where it was obvious that a huge talent gap existed, Iowa has begun 43 of 92 drives this season at its 20 or worse. Eleven of the Hawkeyes' 15 drives at Iowa State started at or behind their 20.
Of course, not all of these drives start following a kickoff, but you get the idea that Iowa hasn't enjoyed the best field position this year. In conference, Iowa is averaging a dismal 10.8 yards per kick return.
As a result of the poor performance in that phase, Iowa ran kick return drills in pads during the bye week workouts, something they rarely do in-season.
"We're definitely putting a lot more emphasis on it than we normally do," Young said. "It's not that we didn't (before), but it's just that when you realize that you're not doing so good, you know you have to work on it even more. We're definitely working on that. We're not going to just sit back and let it be the way it is."
Young's longest kick return this year is 18 yards, while Damien Sims owns the team high of 36. Problem is Sims is fumble prone as he has coughed it up on a return and carrying the ball as a running back. Shonn Greene is now dropping back with Young.
In fairness to Young, teams are kicking away from him and using other unorthodox methods to silence the Hawykeye kick returners.
"We're making little adjustments," Young said. "We've been seeing a lot of crazy things this year. There haven't been many times the ball has been kicked deep. We're seeing a lot of pooch kicks, pop-ups.
"Those things can really mess with a return because first and foremost, you've got to catch the ball. The return being set up, that's even more of a problem. We just keep plugging, keep plugging and we've got three weeks for one to break."
On a couple of positive notes, Iowa ranks first on kickoff coverage. Northwestern, Saturday's opponent, ranks last in the conference in covering kicks. Maybe this will be the week Iowa breaks a return or at least starts with better field position.
BOWL PICTURE: For the first time since 2001, Iowa enters November play not having clinched a bowl berth. Iowa needs one victory in its final three games to become eligible.
"It's different," Greenway said of the Hawkeyes' position. "I guess it's not something that we think about. Obviously we know that we're not bowl eligible. We still have three opportunities left, and we're going to take full advantage of those."
Cornerback Jovon Johnson started his Iowa career in '02. He's never gone into the regular season's final month wondering if he would be playing in a bowl that year.
"It's the first time it's happened to me since I've been here," Johnson said. "At the same time, it just makes us even more hungry to want to go out and get that sixth win. It doesn't matter at this point where we go. We already got three losses under our belt. So, we're fighting to see what happens in the end; to see where we're going to end up."
The Iowa players on Tuesday said that the bowl destination was not important. They sang the song called "Any Bowl is a Good Bowl." But after spending the last three post seasons in Florida, you have to figure the Hawkeyes are looking to avoid Detroit's Motor City Bowl.
"A bowl game is a bowl game," linebacker Abdul Hodge said. "There are a lot of teams that haven't been to a lot of bowl games or any of the bowl games for the last few years. Any time you can go to a bowl, no matter where it is, it's fortunate."
The jury remains out on whether or not Iowa rates as a team deserving of a big bowl. The Hawkeyes three Big Ten wins this season have come against teams that are a combined 1-14 in conference play. Their final three opponents – Northwestern, Wisconsin and Minnesota - are a combined 10-6 in league play. Northwestern handed Wisconsin its only loss, and Minnesota won at Michigan, a team that won in Iowa City.
"To be honest, I don't think we're really thinking about (the bowl picture) right now," Greenway said. "We're thinking about getting this win (against Northwestern). With this win comes bowl eligibility. From there, we just keep building.
"I don't think we're worried about where we're going to end up. We have to worry about getting to the point where we can worry about that. We're not worried about the bowl picture. We're simply focusing on these next three weeks."
NOT SALIVATING: A state newspaper indicated that the Hawkeyes would be slobbering from the mouth with a chance to face a Northwestern defense yielding an incredible 494.8 yards per game this season.
Luckily, the Iowa players don't seem to be buying into the numbers.
"We can't bank on what another team does," Young said. "You know how college football is, a team that gives up 300 yards one week, the next week shuts you down to 50.
"We're not good enough to salivate over teams' weaknesses right now. We've got our own problems to worry about. We need to worry about Iowa right now."
EXTRA POINTS: Iowa has beaten Northwestern in their last three meetings and is 3-1 against the Wildcats under Ferentz…Northwestern will be celebrating Senior Day on Saturday. It will be honoring stars like Brett Basanez, Tim McGarigle and Zach Strief…McGarigle recorded 21 tackles against Michigan last week…Basanez is one of seven semi-finalists for the Unitas Award…Iowa is 2-3 following bye weeks under Ferentz…No current Hawkeye played in the last Iowa-Northwestern game played Nov. 1. 2001…Iowa boasts nine players from the state of Illinois…This will be Iowa's second game televised in high definition. The other was the Cap 1 Bowl.