MADISON, Wisc. - As we were leaving Camp Randall here on Saturday afternoon, co-worker Brian Finley asked me if this season feels anything like 2002. It was a great question even though a lot more real estate remains between the current team and 8-0 in the Big Ten.
It's always tough to remember back to how you felt about a team after each game of each season. I do remember after the Michigan game in '04, when Iowa dropped to 2-2, that many members of the media and fan base were throwing dirt on the Hawkeye grave. That is a valuable lesson in allowing things to play out before passing judgment.
The Hawkeyes are a lot more fragile than some other top programs. Hayden Fry says Iowa is a team that often can compete with anyone with its first-teamers and some of the backups. After that, there's usually a big drop-off when compared with the USC's and Florida's of the world. Kirk Ferentz echoes this sentiment.
The Hawkeyes were built to win in 2002. They had an experienced offensive line that had sustained having sand kicked in its face for a few years. There was a playmaker at quarterback and a freak at tight end (sound familiar?). The defense included seven players who worked in prime roles that eventually reached the NFL and backups that included Chad Greenway, Sean Considine and Abdul Hodge running around on special teams.
Two Thousand Two was a special, special year and the standard by which every future Ferentz team has been and will be measured. As I said, this Hawkeye team has a lot of ground to cover even to match what the '04 team accomplished.
Now, let's get back to Brian's question. Does this feel like 2002?
After thinking about it for a day or so, there are at least two traits of this year's team that remind me a lot of '02. The current Hawkeyes play hard for 60 minutes and never seem to panic.
"We've been there before," Iowa Linebacker Pat Angerer said about nail-biting wins after Saturday's 20-10, come-from-behind victory against Wisconsin. "It's making me old. I'm falling apart. But it's fun. We've yet to play a complete game. We're 7-0 and we haven't put together a complete game.
"We want perfection. We're not satisfied with anything. We need to work harder."
Iowa has been fortunate not to suffer any major injuries during the season and it has caught some breaks. That happened in '02 as well, and needs to unfold here because of what we talked about earlier. Depth is a factor for the Hawkeyes.
Iowa has dealt with the flu much like the rest of the world. Several key players were slowed by the illness last week and missed practice. Nobody sat out the Wisconsin game because of it.
"We've had two weeks now where we've gotten nailed a little bit," Ferentz said. "That's the negative side of it. The positive side is that our medical staff has done a fantastic job getting out guys back out there.
"It's reflective our team. We keep pushing forward. They don't seem to get too affected by what happens, so hopefully we can continue that."
The Hawkeyes have ridden a very emotional rollercoaster in several games this season. They needed two blocked kicks in the final seconds to beat Northern Iowa by a point, hung on to beat Arkansas State by three points and held off Michigan to win by two points. If nothing else, that built character.
Iowa fell behind 10-0, was down 10-3 at halftime and outscored Wisconsin 17-0 in the second half here on Saturday.
"That's really a tribute to Coach (Chris) Doyle," Iowa Receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos said. "He's really got us conditioned to go the full 60. We come into the (locker room), make our corrections and know what we have to do. We just come out and execute the game plan in the second half. It's as simple as that."
Despite being 6-0, Iowa was almost a field goal underdog on Saturday. Yes, that could be attributed to Wisconsin's home field advantage. It also pointed to Hawkeye doubters in the world of college football.
The Iowa players never were in doubt.
"So many games this year we've kind of had our backs up against the wall," Johnson-Koulianos said. "We come out and give up early scores, pick-sixes. Now, we're kind of used to it. Now, we're "OK. Let's go. We have to go and do our thing.""
I'm unwilling to make the leap and say this is going to be like 2002. I'm superstitious and too nervous to upset the Hawkeye gods by making such a statement.
But, yes, there are aspects of this season that are familiar. This group has a resolve that mirrors the best team in the Ferentz era. And that, Hawkeye fans, can take it a long way.