MADISON - There’s been ample opportunity for Iowa to break during the 2014 season. A close loss to a rival, a blowout in a trophy, issues on defense, up-and-down play under center, any number of things that could have spiraled the Hawkeyes out of Big Ten title contention or worse.
And yet, Iowa (7-3, 4-2 Big Ten) enters the final two weeks of the regular season knowing that consecutive home wins over No.14 Wisconsin (8-2, 5-1) Saturday and No.21 Nebraska (8-2, 4-2) next Friday clinch them a share of the Big Ten West Division title and the program’s first trip to the Big Ten Championship game.
“This guys have been eager, they’ve worked hard and they’ve really had a positive attitude all along,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. “You love all your teams, but some are more responsive.”
Iowa’s resiliency has been put to the test several times, and the Hawkeyes keep picking themselves off the turf.
After letting Iowa State score 10 fourth-quarter points and kick the game-winning field goal in the final seconds, Iowa grinded out a road victory at Pittsburgh. Following a three-turnover performance in a seven-point loss at Maryland, Iowa returned from its bye week to pound Northwestern 48-7.
“We’ve had our ups and downs on the field and haven’t always played our best certainly,” said Ferentz. “Typically if we’ve had a disappointed outing we bounce back, get back up on our feet and go to work. That’s all you can ask from a group of young guys.”
Ferentz will have to ask a lot of his group this week facing a running back in Melvin Gordon who ran for an FBS-record 408 yards and four touchdowns on only 25 carries - in only three quarters nonetheless - in a 59-24 win over the Cornhuskers.
Leading the nation with 190.9 rushing yards per game, Gordon has rushed for at least 100 yards in all nine games against FBS teams this year. Already this season Iowa has faced the nation’s second leading rusher – Indiana’s Tevin Coleman – and third leading rusher – Pittsburgh’s James Conner.
Those games aren’t good foreshadowing, as Coleman rushed for 219 and Conner 155. Iowa did hold Minnesota’s David Cobb – seventh in the nation – to only 74 yards, but that’s because the Gophers rotated multiple tailbacks and ran for 291 yards.
“Unfortunately we really haven’t contained anybody really well,” said Ferentz, as Iowa is allowing 147.8 rushing yards per game. “To me, Melvin is at a little different level than anybody I’ve seen on tape. That may go for the last 15 years…They’ve got the whole package offensively.”
One way to slow down Wisconsin is to keep Gordon and the offense off the field. In its win over the Illini last week, Iowa held the ball for nearly 36 minutes and gained a season-high 587 yards. Senior running back Mark Weisman also broke 100 yards for the first time in 2014.
But just like the problem in dealing with a unique player in Gordon, Ferentz has to solve the enigma known as Wisconsin’s defense, which leads the nation in total defense (244.0 per game) and appears to be getting stronger every week.
“It’s a totally different scheme, yet it looks the same in everybody knows what they’re doing,” said Ferentz. “They play with great fundamentals, play with great hardness and enthusiasm. The whole story is a great story. When you have a new staff, you’re typically going in where improvements need to be made. Wisconsin was playing at a pretty high level with Gary (Andersen) coming in there. They haven’t missed a beat.”
This will be the second time in a decade Wisconsin and Iowa have played a 2:30 kickoff in Iowa City in late November with a Big Ten title hanging in the balance. In 2004, Ohio State beat Michigan in the early game to clear a path for the game’s winner to win a share of the conference title. Iowa plastered Wisconsin, 30-7, and finished the year 10-2. UW started that year 9-0 but lost its last three games.
Iowa hasn’t won a Big Ten title compared to the Badgers’ three, something that could change if they defend its home turf the next weeks.
“It was just a great atmosphere, and we’ve been on the other end of it too,” said Ferentz, referring to the Dayne Game for Wisconsin in 1999. “(2004) was a great environment, two really competitive football teams and just a hard-fought, up-and-down-type ball game.”