Iowa enters crucial closing stretch at 4-2
IOWA CITY — Iowa made it to the middle of October at 4-2, right about where most pundits had pegged the Hawkeyes to be halfway through the season.
How Iowa finishes over the next six weeks will determine whether 2017 will be a season to remember.
The Hawkeyes (4-2, 1-2 Big Ten) have a thrilling win over Iowa State, an agonizing loss to No. 2 Penn State and a frustrating defeat to No. 18 Michigan State on their resume so far.
The schedule doesn’t get any easier, starting with Saturday’s matchup at Northwestern (3-3, 1-2). Iowa still has to host No. 6 Ohio State, travel to No. 5 Wisconsin and finish at Nebraska, a wounded rival that could view the Hawkeyes as its last chance to salvage some respectability.
“I think for the most part we’ve done a good job,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “We’ve moved forward here a little bit and played good competition, combined I think the teams that we’ve played, somebody told me the record is 25-11. We’ve played a really competitive schedule.”
Injuries along the offensive line led to a surprisingly sluggish rushing attack. But the Hawkeyes used the recent bye week to get more work for freshman tackles Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs — the latter a true freshman — and the hope is that the line can find its groove.
Sophomore quarterback Nate Stanley has been a pleasant surprise, throwing for 15 touchdowns against just two picks after barely winning the starting job. He’s missed on a number of deep balls, and some improvement could open things up for a rushing attack averaging just 3.7 yards per attempt.
Running back James Butler won’t be back for Saturday’s game, though Ferentz said Tuesday that he’s hopeful Butler can play against Minnesota.
“We want to improve our yards per carry. That’s lower than we want and something we want to get better at after the bye,” Stanley said.
Iowa’s defense, led by senior Josey Jewell, is on pace to match last year’s unit — which is a good sign for the program. The Hawkeyes are sixth in the Big Ten and 21st nationally with 18.7 points allowed per game.
Iowa had a hiccup in its second game against Iowa State, allowing 41 points to a team that has turned out to be a major surprise in the Big 12, but kept its other five opponents at 21 or fewer points.
Iowa’s young, deep and talented defensive line has been a strong point, and Jewell on Tuesday was a midseason first-team All-America pick.
“I’m encouraged for the second half of the season. We’re looking forward to the up-front guys,” Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker said. “The linebackers are playing solid, and I feel very comfortable where we’re at in the secondary.”