IOWA CITY, Iowa – The scene at Kinnick was somber, for the most part. Thousands of Iowa fans stood stunned in the stands as the Hawkeyes ran out of chances.
Across the field, a small contingent of Northwestern fans were chanting, "Five and O. Five and O. Five and O." It was a homecoming punch in the gut.
The Hawkeyes fell to 2-7 in their last nine games decided by five points or less with the 22-17 setback against Northwestern on Saturday. They've also lost their last eight contests decided by three points or less.
What do those trends tell us? It says we're moving farther and farther away from the fabulous run during the 2002-04 glory days.
Iowa used to make their breaks back then. Since that time, they can't seem to catch many. But they've also found ways on many Saturdays to hurt themselves. The past few years, effort has been lacking at times. This fall, the shortcomings seem to be popping up above the shoulders.
The Hawkeyes turned it over five times against Northwestern. They committed poorly-timed penalties and failed to score a point in the second half.
People might want to accentuate the disappointment by adding that it happened against the Wildcats. That would be a valid point if they hadn't beaten Iowa three of the last four years and twice in Kinnick.
Iowa marched the ball deep into Wildcat territory in the closing minutes. Four shots at the end zone miss their mark. It would have been surprising of one hit its target with the way things mostly have gone during the last three seasons.
Most of the Iowa players held their heads up during Saturday's post-game press conference. They said the right things, like they just need to stop making the mistakes and that were correctible. They need to work harder. They're a good team. They still have chemistry. They'll get it fixed.
You want so much to believe them when you look in their eyes. You get the sense that they're working hard to win. But they're saying things we've heard over and over again the last three years. The results say 15-15 overall and 6-11 in the Big Ten since the start of the '06 season. And, they're 9-6 in their last 15 home games and have lost five of their last nine conference contests in Kinnick.
The players must say they're going to turn this thing around. They cannot allow those numbers outlined in the previous paragraph to interfere with the rest of '08. And they won't.
What's going to be tough is changing the trend that the Hawkeyes are mired in right now. They are losing close games. To say that doesn't weigh on a team is naïve.
When things were going well earlier this decade, Iowa felt like it was going to be at the top of the mountain when the final horn sounded. It appears that in the last few years that hasn't been the case.
I asked Mitch King on Saturday what's happening to allow other teams to win these tight games. He reversed the question and asked me what I thought. He wasn't happy. You can listen to the audio on our site.
After reeling off a few reasons why I felt things were coming up short, I informed him that I can't quote myself and asked what the team needs to do to win the close ones like the teams earlier in the decade.
"Earlier in the decade…competition gets closer," he said. "Football is football. Anybody can win on any given day. You let them close the gap with mental errors and loss of focus, it's going to hurt you. It's going to bite you, especially with the talent this country has in football."
King makes a good point. As we watch teams like USC and Florida fall to teams they're heavily favored to beat, we realize parity it alive and well in the sport. But that doesn't explain why Iowa hasn't risen to the challenge of that landscape.
You'd also like to believe that Iowa will be able to keep out the bad thoughts surrounding the program. The Hawkeyes are now 3-2 and on a two-game skid. Next week, they travel to Michigan State, a place where they haven't won since '95, and then to Indiana, which has beaten them the last two years.
"There is going to be a lot of noise," Iowa Guard Julian Vandervelde said. "What type of team is Iowa going to be? How have they performed so far? What's the competition going to be like in the future? That's something we're just going to have to put on the backburner. That's something we're going to have to not listen to."
That's sometimes easier said than done. And all we have to go on is what we've seen so far. We don't know how good Iowa is right now. When you consider that its beaten two overmatched opponents at home, snuck out a win against a rebuilding Iowa State team in Kinnick and lost to the two toughest programs its faced in Pittsburgh and Northwestern, you have to say average, at best.
"Whatever the things are we're doing poorly, we see it the next week," Hawkeye linebacker A.J. Edds said. "We just have to keep learning; keep fixing some stuff and just keep playing. The mistakes are fixable. If it was an effort thing, we'd be in some trouble."
Time will tell if the things get fixed. The Hawkeyes show that they've repaired the lapses of effort only to be hit with mental mistakes. Does something else break if they sure that up? It's not about holding it all together for one game as it did against Illinois last season. It's about a consistency that's been lacking since '04.
Iowa finds itself in a very difficult position to turn things around. It's 1-9 in its last 10 road games, and two more losses away from home in the next two weeks could be devastating for this program.
"It's not going to be easy," Edds said. "Nobody thinks that it will be. So, we just have to have our mindset and know that it's going to be tough. We have to keep working."
The Hawkeyes and their fans have to hope it's enough to turn things around and believe that recent history won't repeat itself. That might be the most difficult thing to do right now.