IOWA CITY, Iowa — It’s a good thing Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz never paid attention to those that tabbed the Hawkeyes as a potential national title contender.
Any shot at the national championship game is well out of reach for No. 18 Iowa (5-2, 2-1 Big Ten) after a heartbreaking 31-30 loss to ninth-ranked Wisconsin on Saturday.
The Hawkeyes still have a shot at the Big Ten title if they win out, though, and they can make a major statement to the rest of the conference with a win over league-leading Michigan State (8-0, 4-0) on Saturday.
The road to the Big Ten title was supposed to go through Iowa City. It still can, although a loss to the Spartans would leave the Hawkeyes in the role of spoilers, not contenders, the rest of the way.
“It’s still too early to talk about the big picture,” Ferentz said. “What’s important right now is we play well this week. That’s really what’s important. If you’re going to have a good team, a successful team, you have to get over disappointment. That’s just part of the deal.”
Wisconsin proved to be a legitimate Big Ten contender and among the nation’s best with a gritty win in Iowa City.
But the Hawkeyes did more than enough to help the Badgers with special teams blunders that buried them yet again.
Iowa blew an extra-point kick in a one-point loss, botched a snap on a failed field goal attempt and gave up a big gain on a fake punt in the fourth quarter that will sting well into next spring.
Ferentz took the fall for the fake that punter Brad Nortman ran 17 yards to keep the Badgers game-winning drive going. But he can’t take all the blame for the inconsistent special teams play that also cost them in a loss to Arizona last month.
That’s a troubling trend to try to correct in preparation for the Spartans. They beat Notre Dame with a fake field goal in OT and rallied to hold off Northwestern last week, 35-27, with the help of a fake punt.
“We had some inexperienced mistakes and we had some veteran guys that made some critical errors, too,” Ferentz said.
Mistakes like that weren’t expected to matter much this season because of Iowa’s vaunted defense.
It’s been as good as advertised at times. But it’s also had issues against top-notch offenses.
Michigan put up 28 points on the Hawkeyes, even though quarterback Denard Robinson was knocked out of the game, and Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien was 20-of-26 passing last Saturday.
Worse yet, Iowa allowed both Arizona and the Badgers to go on long scoring drives late in the fourth quarter with the game on the line. But Ferentz still believes in his defense, which has faced three of the nation’s best offenses.
“I don’t think we’re ready to pitch in the towel yet,” Ferentz said.
Linebacker play has also been a sore spot for the Hawkeyes, who lost a pair of NFL draft picks in linebackers A.J. Edds and Pat Angerer and have been hit by a rash of injuries.
Iowa has played the last two games without starting middle linebacker Jeff Tarpinian, who’s been out with a neck injury. He’s not listed on the depth chart for Saturday’s game either, though he could play some.
Iowa also lost linebacker Bruce Davis for the season with a knee injury in September. Jeremiah Hunter played sporadically in the second half on Saturday after hurting his knee as well and is questionable for this week.
Iowa’s been left with an unproven and untested linebacking corps that’ll have its hands full against Michigan State.
The Spartans averaging 34.5 points per game behind quarterback Kirk Cousins, who’s currently 12th in the nation in passing efficiency.
“We’re thin. That’s fair to say,” Ferentz said about his linebackers. “We’ll play the guys we have and we’ll play better.”