Not that long ago, I was ready to write off Iowa's football season. After looking absolutely awful through their first four games and handing over a win to Central Michigan, I was seriously thinking that the Hawkeyes might just end up the year with a 3-9 record.
Not so much anymore.
Let's not sugarcoat this. The Iowa team that took the field against Northern Illinois was pretty bad. Check that—they were lousy.
In the beginning, the offensive line was completely out of sync. They created some holes for the run game, but pass protection was a joke and the offense suffered horribly. James Vandenberg hasn't been himself this year, but in the first two games, he didn't have the confidence to even look down the field and settled for far too many dump passes at the line of scrimmage.
The defense was merely "okay" in those early games. There was little-to-no pressure coming from the line and the secondary had to do far too much. Worse, they slept their way through the first half of their games and didn't come around until the second half. In effect, they spotted their opponents 30 minutes of unfettered offense before turning up the heat.
It's a wonder Iowa managed to win two of their first three.
By the time Iowa took on Iowa State, the offensive line started to gel. They provided solid protection for Vandenberg and created some nice holes for the runners. As a result, we saw the senior QB start taking legitimate shots downfield.
The biggest problem that game was that Iowa's receivers couldn't catch a cold even if they were standing in the middle of the largest pandemic in world history. It seemed that every ball thrown on target was rejected as though it were covered in razor blades.
The defense still lacked much serious penetration, but it did its job in holding the Cyclone offense in check and kept the game within reach right up to the end.
There were a slew of errors against Central Michigan, but there was improvement, as well. The offense appeared more deep and consistent than it had at any previous time. Of course, RB Mark Weisman's emergence was a large part of that, but the pass game looked incredibly improved as well.
The largest gaff was obviously the blown onside kick that literally handed the ball back to the Chippewas in position to steal away the win. Well, that and the fact that they committed nine penalties for a catastrophic 106 yards.
The showdown against Minnesota was the most complete performance we'd seen up to that point. The defense came out strong and maintained all game long. The offense utilized Mark Weisman to pummel the defense and set up an effective pass attack.
They even threw in a nifty little flea-flicker to show that Greg Davis/Kirk Ferentz went out and bought a bag of tricks and weren't afraid to use it.
The point of this little history lesson, though, is to show that Iowa has been a work in progress throughout the first half of the season. I, and many other fans, were ready to call for Kirk Ferentz's head on a platter after blowing the game to Central Michigan, but such hate was hasty, to say the least.
We knew they would have issues coming into the season. We shouldn't have been surprised when we saw those issues in living color.
They've been consistently getting better, though. From one week to the next, you can visually witness the nastiest of imperfections fading and falling away. What was a case of building a team from the ground up is quickly getting to a place where the coaches can afford to nitpick on the little things.
In a nutshell, Iowa is getting good.
The 19-16, double-overtime victory over Michigan State was still a little ugly. Some of that had to do with the persistent rain falling over Spartan Stadium. Some of it was still a case of a young team learning who they are and making inexperienced mistakes.
However, for the second straight week, this team put together a complete game. The offense struggled, but they were facing a very good defense. They kept pounding away and taking what the defense gave them until they finally broke through for a touchdown.
The defense did what Iowa fans have long loved about this Hawkeye team—they bent in allowing Le'Veon Bell to run for 140 yards on 29 carries, but didn't break as they allowed him to only score once and eventually wore him down.
Oh yeah, and they held the Spartans to their second lowest scoring total of the year so far.
The special teams play was truly special. Coverage was as solid as could be asked for and K Mike Myer was money in the bank, hitting four-for-four in field goals.
Most importantly, Iowa went into hostile territory, played a good Spartan team and battled through four hard quarters and two overtimes...and came away with a thrilling victory.
Michigan State may not be as good as they were hyped to be at the beginning of the season, but they're still a good football team. To get the road win is huge.
This isn't a 3-9 Iowa team. It's not a 5-7 or even 6-6 team. That is, they're not if they keep improving the way they have so far this season.
This is a team that should be bowling in late December or even January. If they keep getting better at the rate they've improved to this point, they could even be a legitimate threat for a trip to Indianapolis in early December for a shot at Pasadena in January.
I never would have guessed that just a few weeks ago, but here we are. There's a long way left to go and a lot left to improve on, but last weekend's win may have been a very big corner the Hawkeyes turned.
It may have salvaged a season still on the brink.
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