Iowa sputtering ahead of rivalry game vs. Nebraska


IOWA CITY — If Iowa can make a few runs at the Big Ten title in years to come, 2017 might be looked upon as a necessary rebuild.

For now, this season just feels like a major disappointment.

The Hawkeyes are sputtering toward the finish, having lost two straight after a 55-21 rout over then-No. 3 Ohio State that in retrospect seems more confounding than ever.

Iowa, (6-5, 3-5 Big Ten), guaranteed to finish with a losing record in the Big Ten for the first time in five years, travels to Nebraska (4-7, 3-5) for a Friday matchup of two rivals simply playing out the string.

“Any time you lose five games, you’re not going to be happy — and a lot of those were close games, games where one or two things go differently, a couple of plays and the outcome is different,” linebacker Ben Niemann said. “Obviously it’s frustrating as a competitor. I think our team and our coaches, you wish you could have things back. But you can’t, and we have two games left and an opportunity to win both of them. That’s where our focus has to be at this point.”

Iowa’s defense has largely held up this season, although its failure to adjust to Purdue’s strategy of avoiding cornerback Josh Jackson cost the Hawkeyes in a 24-15 loss on Saturday.

Lineman Parker Hesse said Tuesday that the Hawkeyes took ownership of the mistakes they made against the Boilermakers and intend to push forward.

“It’s more or less drawing a line in the sand and saying ‘This is who we are, and this is who we’re not.’ Do the things we do every single week, we’re going to do them to that standard,” Hesse said. “You want to be feeling good. If you’re playing well, things feed off of each other and you can keep building.”

The offense, under first-year coordinator Brian Ferentz, has been at the heart of this year’s middling results.

The irony of that is that Iowa’s passing game, which struggled mightily in 2016 and showed little hope of improving in the offseason, has been much better than expected. The Hawkeyes appear to have a three-year starter at quarterback in Nate Stanley, and wide receiver Nick Easley and tight end T.J. Hockenson have emerged as legitimate downfield threats.

But Iowa is just 12th in the Big Ten in rushing and last with nine touchdowns on the ground — despite being the only team in the country with more than one running back who ran for over 1,000 yards in 2016.

Losing tackles Ike Boettger and Boone Myers to injuries had a lot to do with that. But the Hawkeyes will need to make fixing the ground attack a priority starting with bowl preparations.

“What we have to do is get our veterans to lead us, get our younger guys to continue to improve, and then we have to give them a plan that’ll give them a chance to go out and have success on the field,” coach Kirk Ferentz said.

If the Hawkeyes are going to post better results in 2018 and beyond, beating Nebraska and their bowl opponent would be a good way to get started. That was the gist of the message senior linebacker Josey Jewell delivered to his teammates in the locker room after the loss to Purdue.

“I hope people on focused on kind of being able to end on a high note in the regular season is big for all of us. It’ll also help us with the bowl game too,” Jewell said. “There’s a lot of motivation to win this game.”