STATE COLLEGE, Pa. _ This isn't getting any easier. The Iowa players walk a little slower out of the locker room, their expressions more blank. Winning is fun. Losing isn't.
The Hawkeyes embarked on the season dreaming of championships, of putting the memory of last year's collapse in their rearview mirror. Instead, the nightmare has continued.
Saturday's 27-7 setback at Penn State made sense. Coming in here to Happy Valley, Iowa was riding a three-game losing streak due to an anemic offense that caused its game defense to wear down in second halves. That formula for disaster was cooked up again by the Hawkeyes, who managed just 54 yards of offense through three quarters.
Iowa now has lost a season's worth of conference games in a row and at 0-3 likely has taken itself out of the Big Ten title hunt in the first week of October.
"I'm definitely surprised. I certainly didn't anticipate it," Iowa senior Adam Shada said. "I thought we had a good chance going into the year. I thought we had a good camp. We were gelling well. We've hit a rough spot and we haven't been able to get out of it. It's going to take some leadership from our seniors to get out of it. I'm confident we can do that."
To a man, each player in Saturday's post-game press conference expressed belief that they can turn the season around. But you could sense more frustration in their tones and maybe some questioning of when this skid is going to end.
Working your tail off in practice and losing on Saturday drains an athlete. It's tough to retrieve that emotion and fire as the losses mount. Gauging improvement is hard. They say they need to just keep getting better each week, but are they?
"It's hard to say. It's really hard to say," Iowa center Rafael Eubanks said. "I'd like to feel like we are, but I don't know right now"
Not very comforting is it?
Eubanks seemed as stumped by Iowa's freefall as are most of you. Iowa improved between games one and two only to take a step back against Iowa State. The Hawkeyes got better in losing a hard-fought, 17-13 game versus Wisconsin the next week only to completely come undone against Indiana last Saturday. At Penn State might not have been a step back, but it sure as heck was hard to find improvement.
"Our challenges are obvious," Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Our positives aren't quite as obvious. There really isn't much else to say right now."
Iowa has dropped its first three conference games for just the second time in the Ferentz Era. The other one came in 1999, his first as Hawkeye head coach. It represented only the fourth time since ‘79 that the program has fallen in its first three league games.
"Nobody wants to hear this, but we have been in this situation before," Ferentz said. "Only an outsider would say it is hopeless. But everyone on the team and the staff thinks differently, and that is all that counts. We have six games left. We have a lot of improving to do yet."
Can they improve quick enough, however? On paper, their two toughest games of the remaining six are straight ahead. Illinois (yeah, the one we've all made fun of in recent years) comes to Kinnick Stadium next week off of wins against Penn State and Wisconsin. A week later, the Hawkeyes travel to Purdue, site of past struggles.
You have to think this team will improve. Really, how much worse can it get? Can it be as bad as ‘99? You'd like to think no, but really, who knows? The Iowa offense here at Beaver Stadium isn't potent enough to win many, if any, games.
In addition to only having 54 yards after three quarters, the Hawkeyes went three-and-out on eight consecutive series. For the game, they only had two of 14 series last more than five plays. Ryan Donahue, one of the lone bright spots on Saturday, punted 11 times.
"We're struggling," Eubanks said. "Three-and-outs, we had a lot of those today. We kept the defense on the field. It's hard to fathom. We work on these things so much. I don't know what that says. We're just not able to get it done. We work on all this stuff. It's just not coming yet for us."
Iowa quarterback Jake Christensen was sacked five times on Saturday after being dropped on nine occasions against Indiana a week earlier. The combination of inconsistent blocking and poor blitz pickup, along with Christensen's tendency to hang onto the ball too long and receivers failing to get open consistently has been poisonous.
"We're just not getting it done for him," Eubanks said. "Anytime you get hit as much as he does, it's going to take a toll on him. He frustrated because he knows what we can do when we're clicking. You saw that when we made that long drive. It's just getting all those pieces together for the full 60 minutes. "
The Hawkeyes put together an 8-play, 86-yard scoring drive at the start of the fourth quarter, but it proved much too little, much too late. It was gratifying to see it after the struggles earlier in the game, but Penn State had a comfortable lead and seemed to let up on the march. It shouldn't have left people thinking that a 28-point outburst lie right around the corner.
"We wanted to come out and attack, and we did a great job in the first half, shut them down and made them pretty much change their style of offense to spread it out in the second," Penn State linebacker Dan Connor said.
This was a game that matched similar styles, teams that line up in traditional sets and attempt to run the ball to set up the pass. They played the field position game early until Penn State broke through with a touchdown with 10 minutes left in the second quarter.
It could be figured that Iowa would hang in this game because of the conservative approach of Penn State. The Hawkeyes did just that, as they accomplished at Wisconsin, but they're not precise enough right now to win that way.
Ferentz lauded his defense for its performance on Saturday. But it would have taken an elite defense for the Hawkeyes to win the last three weeks. Theirs has been good, but not great.
Penn State ran for 254 yards and posted 489 yards overall. Iowa sacked Lions quarterback twice (both by Mitch King) but they came in the first half, and the Hawkeyes weren't credited with any hurries. That wasn't Iowa's ‘04 defense out there.
They get tired as the three-and-outs pile up for the offense, but Penn State was running the ball all day, start to finish with back-up tailbacks. And, Iowa substituted on defense far more than it had in any other game this season.
"They were running it down Iowa's throat and the offensive line did a great job," Connor said of the PSU offense. "It's always a relief when you can get a break and hang out on the sidelines and watch your teammates play."
Meanwhile, Iowa continued in its ineptness of getting the ball to its two most dangerous weapons - senior running backs Albert Young and Damian Sims. They combined for just 17 carries (46 yards) and five catches (16). Both were requested for post-game interviews and neither showed up. Young, a New Jersey native, did have a lot of friends and family at the game.
Its obvious that most of Iowa's opponents are gearing up to stop Iowa's backs, but there has to be a way to get this duo more involved in the action. Perhaps it could spark a listless attack.
"We obviously didn't have as much intensity (on offense) before our touchdown,. I know that" Christensen said. "Once we get down in the whole, it's hard to stay 100 percent positive. Hopefully we can stop getting down points or if we do just realize we have the capability to come back."
This team's confidence and resolve will be tested this week and going forward. A season that started with hope and promise of titles and a big bowl is sinking fast. As Ferentz said, the players and the coaches might be the only ones that think this thing can turn around.
"We have no choice," Christensen said. "If we want to be playing in December, we have to start playing better. There's no doubt about it."
Said Shada: "Getting frustrated isn't going to help. Pointing fingers isn't going to help. We just have to keep working. It's tough to take positive things from a loss, but I don't think we've quit by any means. At least we're working hard. We have to keep doing that and makes plays when they need to be made."