I was experiencing a flashback while interviewing the Indiana players on Saturday. These Hoosiers swaggered into the press conference looking the part of a program on the rise, one that expected to beat Iowa 38-20 in front of a sold out homecoming crowd at Kinnick Stadium.
"This is an important win for us," Indiana's Tracy Porter said. "Iowa is a good program. It was great seeing their fans leave the game in the third quarter."
Ouch, that has to hurt. It wasn't long ago that Iowa stepped on top of teams like Wisconsin and Purdue on its way to the elite of the league. I recall being outside the Hawkeye locker room at Penn State in '00 and Michigan two years later as they were climbing the mountain.
Indiana has not reached postseason play since the 1993 Independence Bowl. The Hoosiers won just their second Big Ten road game since the start of '02. They've now defeated Iowa two times in a row, while the Hawkeyes dropped their seventh consecutive conference game.
"We've had a history of not being able to win Big Ten road games," Indiana quarterback Kellen Lewis said. "It was a good feeling to be able to come back here and get a win. Two years ago we came here and battled all the way through the fourth quarter and ended up giving it up at the end."
Across the way, a sullen Kirk Ferentz appeared close to tears when talking about an argument between his receiver Trey Stross and assistant coach Eric Johnson. It represented a far cry – excuse the expression – from a coach welling up with pride after winning at the Big House in 2002.
If Saturday's loss wasn't rock bottom, I'd hate to see what it looks like. That's not a knock on Indiana, an improving team, but more of a commentary on the state of the Iowa program.
Saturday reminded me a lot of ‘99 and the beginning of '00. The Hawkeyes were outmatched athletically and in terms of talent. They found ways to make mistakes at the most inopportune times.
"At the end of the year, we'll tally it all up and see where we're at, see if there are any parallels (between losing five Big Ten games in a row to end '06 and the first two this season)," Ferentz said. "But right now I think all we need to worry about, I'm talking about us internally here, we just need to worry about what is in front of us. That's what I was alluding to. On the outside, I understand those are topics of conversation, you know. It comes with the territory. But we need to worry about what we're doing here."
That's a great approach if it showed signs of working since Iowa won it's last conference game almost a year ago against Purdue. These guys don't live in a vacuum. They know they've lost eight of their last 11. They see programs like Indiana and Illinois moving forward as they move back.
As I watched this program grow into the bullies of the Big Ten up to '04, I never would have thought this possible. I figured there would be tough times, days when the ball bounced the other way, but not this drop-off.
Saturday wasn't a fluke. Indiana was the more talented team, the better squad. Iowa looked sharper in a loss at Wisconsin than it did at home against the Hoosiers.
Can anyone make sense of that?
I can. Iowa used to be the hunter, the one trying to prove itself. Now, programs like Indiana and Northwestern and Illinois have targeted the Hawkeyes as their game in an effort to rise up. Wisconsin fell behind Iowa a few years back but clearly has reclaimed its spot ahead of the Hawks.
So, what happened? Did the coaches forget how to coach? Did they not recruit well enough? Is the talent not working hard enough?
First, the coaches didn't forget how to coach. However, they might have waited too long to change. It's nice that Iowa's running more nickel and dime packages, but the players have looked like fish out of water in those alignments. The Hawkeyes tried a flee-flicker than blew up on them. They put Albert Young and Damian Sims in the game together, something for which the fans have been pining, only to be called for an illegal formation.
After what happened last year, Iowa should have examined their attack instead of relying only on hard work to fix its ills. Other programs caught up and adjusted to what Iowa did. Iowa needed to counter that before the season, not when it's unfolding.
Lewis was asked about his touchdown pass to James Hardy on a third and 11 late in the first quarter. The Hoosiers got what they wanted.
"We saw it coming," Lewis said. "We saw the blitz coming. We've been practicing that all week. We knew in tight situations that they like to blitz."
Second, Iowa has talent. There is no doubt in my mind that the total parts of this team are more gifted than the Hawkeyes from '99-00. But are these guys willing to pay the price and focus the way those guys did in Ferentz's first few years? The coaches aren't getting their points across to the players, who maybe don't trust what their coaches are selling because it's not working. There's a disconnection.
Ferentz keeps saying that this is a great group to coach, but I just can't imagine that they're practicing well and playing like this on Saturday.
"I definitely feel like we've been working hard and playing hard," Iowa senior Adam Shada said. "But if you give up big plays, it doesn't matter how hard you work. As far as practice, we're working hard but we leave something to be desired as far as consistency."
Young was asked after the game if next weekend's game at Penn State is a must-win. He shook it off by saying the team wants to win every week and this is just a game, not life and death.
He's right. But it's awful important to a lot of people in this state. They're looking for hope of better times ahead, but on Saturday were given very few signs, if any, for the remainder of this season and beyond.
Ferentz and his staff rebuilt this program into something in which its followers could be proud. There were January Bowls and Top 10 finishes.
Now, there are home losses to Northwestern and Indiana. There are fans leaving Kinnick in the third quarter. The ones that remain in the stands boo.
It's time for the team that broke the rock to get the sledgehammers out again. This thing in front of them looks like a boulder.