ANN ARBOR, Mich _ They came. The played. They found the pulse.
Unfortunately, they lost.
"I wouldn't say we feel better because it‘s another loss," Iowa defensive lineman Ryan Bain said. "We played hard. We played tough. Everybody on the team feels like we played tough, but you can't feel better. It's a loss."
Said Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz: "(Effort is) a starting point, but you don't get prizes; you don't get bowl games; you don't get anything else; you still have to produce," Ferentz said. "I do know this, if you don't play with toughness, if you don't play hard, it's going to be hard to win in this conference."
The sentiments of Bain and Ferentz should have played like music to the ears of Hawkeye Nation. Iowa proved that the heart and guts that this program was built upon during the Ferentz era still beats. But satisfaction with playing hard was no longer acceptable as it may have been in 1999 or 2000.
Iowa showed that the break-the-rock mentality that helped define the program under Ferentz provides enough for a less naturally gifted program to compete with the Wolverines and top-ranked Ohio State, as it did earlier in the season. Two of the Hawkeyes' three losses this season came at the hands of the nation's top teams.
Saturday's dogfight that resulted in Iowa tangling with the Wolverines to the wire, also magnified last week's loss at Indiana. The Hawkeyes' worst effort in the Ferentz era resulted in a 31-28 loss to the Hoosiers in one of the country's biggest upsets of the season. The Hoosiers were pounded 41-3 at Ohio State on Saturday.
Ferentz and his players pointed their collective fingers inward after that embarrassment in Bloomington. But instead of freefalling after that shocker, they responded with a strong week of practice and regained their identity as one of the Big Ten's tough guys.
The Iowa coaches and fan base breathed a collective sigh of relief. The Michigan effort somewhat cleansed the pallet of the Indiana loss. \
Some fans have questioned the intestinal fortitude of this team throughout this season. Why did what was perceived as a lowly Syracuse team take Iowa to overtime? How did Montana stay in the game into the third quarter? Shouldn't we have blown Illinois off of the field?
Perhaps Iowa's effort fell below the necessary level needed in those contests. Maybe that idea came home to roost in Bloomington last week.
Ah, the coach begged to differ when asked if this was the first game, outside of maybe Ohio State, that his team played with toughness.
"I'd really disagree with that comment, I mean, you know, wow, I'd really disagree with that," Ferentz said. "I'd have a hard time going in there (the locker room) and telling them they haven't been playing tough. Wow. That's outrageous. Say what you want about last week and, hey, we'll take whatever you want to throw our way. We opened ourselves up there. But outside of that, I'd take exception to that comment. I'm sorry; with all due respect."
Ferentz appeared pretty edgy in his press conference. His legs were pumping and he was shifting in his seat while taking questions. Not being in the Big Ten title race in the month of October for a second year in a row landed like a led balloon in his stomach. Ohio State and Michigan sat in front of the Hawkeyes, and they failed to slay at least one of the dragons.
Although Michigan shot down the Hawkeyes' last hope for a championship, the return of Iowa's effort after a week's absence supplied the coach with hope.
"It's in our hands," Ferentz said. "There are four games to go. We're not going to win the Big Ten title. We're working on the next one right now. We're 5-3, but there's a lot of football left. That's what we're playing for right now."
If Iowa can win out, which they'll likely be favored to do, the Capital One Bowl probably will come calling on the Hawkeyes for the second time in three years. Iowa exited Ann Arbor after schmoozing with reps from that event on Saturday.
Look at it this way, the Hawkeyes control their own destiny with the opportunity to win 10 games and return to a Jan. 1 or better bowl for a fifth year in a row. They'll likely join USC, and possibly Georgia, as the only teams in the country with that current streak. That's not bad.
Ironically, that loss at Indiana might end up being a black eye that fades away painlessly. Iowa likely lands in the Cap One, win or loss in Bloomington, if it wins out.
When the season started, pundits wondered whether Ohio State could reload on defense and if Michigan had the ability to bounce back after a 7-5 campaign. The answers to those questions has turned out to be a resounding - YES.
Analysts like Mark May threw Iowa out as a title contender. They obviously leaned towards it being a "rebuilding" year in Columbus and Ann Arbor. Ohio State and Michigan not only have risen to the top of the conference but they ascended to the head of the national class.
‘I have no idea of what's going on outside of the teams we see on tape," Ferentz said. "But I can't imagine there are a heck of a lot of teams in the caliber of those two. There might be five. There might be four. There might be three. There might only be two."
So the Hawkeyes have fallen short of their No. 1 goal and some fans' expectations. That has occurred all over the country from Tallahassee to Norman.
Nobody likes to make excuses, but injuries have factored into Iowa's struggles. In addition to having their starting quarterback and running back dinged up all year, the Hawkeyes' defensive leader, Marcus Paschal, has been in and out of the lineup. The Next Man In mantra only goes so far when you don't have the gifted depth enjoyed at Ohio State and Michigan.
So, the Hawkeyes leave here heads held high after relocating their fire. You just get the feeling that this team will finish up strong.