Opinion | Hawkeyes could have folded after 0-2 start, but chose to dominate instead

Penn State remains winless after a slow start to the season, but Iowa is on the right path.


Rich Barnes/USA TODAY Sports

Nov 21, 2020; University Park, Pennsylvania, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions safety Jaquan Brisker (1) pushes Iowa Hawkeyes running back Tyler Goodson (15) out of bounds during the first quarter at Beaver Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Robert Read, Pregame Editor

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Back-to-back losses by a combined five points to begin a shortened, eight-game regular season could have spiraled into a disaster for the Iowa football team.

Because an 0-2 start can quickly turn into an 0-5 meltdown. Just ask, of all teams, Penn State.

As if the 2020 pandemic-ridden college football season needed another dramatic element to it, the Nittany Lions are winless through five games for the first time in program history, with the team’s latest loss coming at the hands of the Hawkeyes in Beaver Stadium.

“If they can be 0-5, that means anybody can be 0-5,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said following Iowa’s 41-21 victory over Penn State. “There’s no guarantees.”

There certainly aren’t any guarantees this season, especially in the Big Ten.

Indiana and Northwestern are legit top-15 teams, because why not. Traditional conference powers Penn State and Michigan may soon be starting coaching searches, the Nittany Lions’ latest loss continues its shockingly substandard season, and the Wolverines struggled to beat Rutgers on Saturday and already lost to Michigan State earlier this season.

At least Nebraska is still bad for some sort of normalcy?

The chaotic nature of the conference combined with a disappointing two games to start the year could have made it easy for the Hawkeyes to collapse and look ahead to next season. If Penn State, with a loaded roster that was projected to compete for a national title, can be winless — Iowa is also susceptible to falling down that same path.

Instead, the Hawkeyes have outscored their last three opponents 125-35 and are back over .500 at 3-2.

“We knew what we were capable of doing,” Iowa linebacker Nick Niemann said. “It was kind of just putting our foot down and making the decision that we weren’t going to let the train go off the tracks and let this thing spiral out of control. We were going to show up, keep working and play like we were capable of.”

Yes, Iowa’s three dominant victories came against teams with a combined record of 3-11.

But in the last three weeks, there’s an apparent toughness to this Hawkeye team, as well as an identity. Iowa will run the ball at will and play stout defense with all 11 defenders running to the ball ready to make a play.

“We’ve got really good players on our football team,” Ferentz said. “Good to work with. They try. They try their ass off. Things don’t always go the way they want, but they try. As long as they’re doing that, you’ve got a chance to grow. And that’s what it’s all about.”

My column last week pointed out that, at that point, Iowa’s next three games presented opportunities for the Hawkeyes to keep their hot streak going. One down, two to go. This week, it’s Nebraska. I’d say the 1-3 Cornhuskers were embarrassed over the weekend by Illinois, but that would mean that any Nebraska loss was surprising at this point.

Nonetheless, Iowa should steamroll Nebraska in Kinnick Stadium on Black Friday. The same thing should happen two weeks from now in Champaign when Iowa takes on Illinois. The team’s season finale against Wisconsin presents Iowa with an opportunity to defeat a rival it has been upstaged by the past five seasons.

Northwestern — a team Iowa once led 17-0 before inevitably losing to — all but has the Big Ten West wrapped up with its 5-0 record. A conference championship is likely not a realistic goal for the Hawkeyes.

Iowa could have folded after the first two games of the season. Instead, the Hawkeyes are making something out of a season that looked destined to be void of much celebration.

So what’s the goal the rest of the way? Keep the hot streak going. Because Iowa is capable of doing so.

“The challenge is to keep it up and make the most out of this season and end it in a way we’re all happy about,” Niemann said. “… It comes down to us not allowing this season to turn into something that we know it doesn’t have to be. And that’s losing any more games after that 0-2 start.”

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