Howe: Hawks Improved Since September

Though the loss will sting for a long time, the truth of the matter is that the team got better

TAMPA, Fla. _ The faces of the Iowa players looked much different after Monday's loss to Florida than they did following thorough beatings at Ohio State and Iowa State early in the season. And, they should have felt better about this Outback Bowl.

Hey, look, nobody enjoys losing. Missed opportunities and mistakes made at Raymond James Stadium will sit with the Hawkeyes for the next eight months or so. They must absorb a season-ending loss for the first time since the 2002 Orange Bowl.

However, this group left Florida knowing it improved immensely since September. They held their heads high because a foot below them pumped a lot of heart.

"We fought," Iowa Center Brian Ferentz said. "At Ohio State, you hate to say it, but we really buckled. We just kind of surrendered. Today, there was no quit. You want to win, but you can leave the locker room with some dignity and some pride."

Trailing 31-7 entering the fourth quarter, Iowa's chances lingered on life support. Many of the Florida fans had hit the exits to celebrate at their tailgates. You couldn't blame them. The Hawkeyes looked like a team that got up on the wrong side of the bed, tripped over the dog and hit its head on the coffee table.

Three major miscues cost Iowa dearly before the intermission. Florida blocked a punt for a touchdown, returned an interception for a score and used a roughing the punter penalty to stop the Hawkeyes' momentum and score a TD right before the half for a 24-7 advantage.

Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said earlier in the week that his team was not good enough to be able to overcome those types of mistakes. He reiterated those comments after Saturday's loss.

"That's the thing…when you do things that are uncharacteristic…we have to play well on special teams, we didn't do that necessarily today," Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. "When you do things that are uncharacteristic, even some subtle things like the point after our first touchdown. But you have to give the opponent a lot of credit. They were forcing things.

"We're not the type of outfit that can commit to many (mistakes) and be able to live through it. You get yourself in the position at the end of the game where you need to make that play, and we didn't."

After Florida extended its lead to 31-7 toward the end of the third quarter, the Hawkeyes responded with 17 unanswered points. With about a minute and a half on the clock, Iowa set up for an on-side kick. It worked wonderfully with Shonn Greene tipping the ball into the hands of teammate Scott Chandler.

Unfortunately for the Hawkeyes, the referees whistled Chad Greenway for being offside. The second on-side kick attempt failed, and Florida ran out the clock.

"I didn't think that I was," said the senior linebacker, who did his best to avoid blaming the officials. "You can say, "What if?" But how it worked out is how it worked out. We have to live with it. But it's hard to end a career losing a game like that."

Media members baited their hooks and threw the line at the Iowa players hoping to catch them ripping the referees, a crew from Conference USA whose work left a lot to be desired. To the Hawkeyes' credit, most of them swam away from the hook.

"You don't think I'm going down that road, do you?" Coach Ferentz said. "I'll say that it was a very consistent performance. Is that nondescript?"

Iowa displayed the class that's turned it into one of the most respected and classy programs in college football. It showed the intestinal fortitude that has become its trademark. Florida Coach Urban Meyer paid the Hawkeyes a tremendous compliment by saying the reason his team attempted a fake punt and went for a touchdown instead of a field goal at the end of the first half was due to its opponent's tendency to keep fighting.

"That's football," said Iowa receiver Clinton Solomon when asked about the breaks going against his team on Monday. "Last year, the Cap 1 game went our way. This year, we lost some games that didn't go our way.

"But this game, in particular, we had penalties that didn't go our way. We had turnovers that didn't go our way; the punt (block). You can look at a lot of things that didn't go our way. But you've got to fight through those things. You've got to come together as a team and just keep grinding it out. And that's what we did. That's why we all have our heads up high right now because we fought until the end. We just came up short to a team that's a good team."

Hawkeye fans should feel down about losing. That's part of being a fan. No program is undefeated. They all go through this thing they call losing.

Iowa finishes a season it started ranked in the Top 10 at 7-5 or one less loss than it suffered through in the previous three campaigns combined. As a fan, you retain every right to be a little negative, but try not to dwell on it.

Monday's game showed tremendous growth of this team, which returns a lot of firepower next year.

"It was a learning experience for the younger guys," Brian Ferentz said of the season. "As seniors, we would have preferred it to go a little differently. We had some ups and down. We finished pretty strong. It would have been nice to win this game. The younger guys gained a lot of experience. They've seen it all. Hopefully that experience will prove to be very valuable."

We learned this season that the margin for error was small. In seasons passed, we landed on the positive side of that margin, making it less magnified. The law of averages told us that this could happen.

The wildcard we hold is that Coach Ferentz hates losing. You could see the wheels in his head turning during Monday's press conference. Weaknesses will be addressed.

"It starts with replacing the seniors, particularly for us," Coach Ferentz said when asked to look toward ‘06. "We're not a four-deep outfit. We have to keep bringing guys along not only from a playing standpoint but also from a leadership standpoint.

"I've seen some real young leaders emerge on our team. Drew Tate is obvious, but I'm talking about some younger guys during the last several weeks of this season and then during the course of this bowl game. I'm excited about that. We need to do better in September. That's something that's been on my mind for quite some time."

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