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November 13, 2012

Hawkeyes clinging to postseason aspirations

Sure there were some ugly blemishes on the resume early in the season, but Iowa was 4-2, 2-0 in the Big Ten and dreaming of contending for the Legends Division. Since then, though, the Hawkeyes have lost four straight and are spiraling out of control.

During this four-game losing streak, the Hawkeyes have surrendered an average of 475.0 yards and 29.3 points per game while averaging 19.0 points and 288.5 yards of offense.

Northwestern rushed for 349 yards in a 28-17 win over Iowa Oct. 27, Indiana threw for 406 yards in a 24-21 win Nov. 3, and feeble Purdue, which had lost five in a row itself, averaging 17.2 points and 313.6 yards of offense, scored 27 points and amassed 490 yards of offense.

"Even in 2000, when they went 3-9, they were playing their best football in November, but this year it's much more a slow march to the end," said HawkeyeReport.com publisher Tom Kakert.

"You know, we've lost four straight games, and we're 4-6, and that's where we're at," said Ferentz, so matter-of-factly.

"Really the only thing I can be concerned with is beating Michigan. Our football team, I'm getting them ready to play their best against Michigan. That's really what I'm focused on."

Iowa's plight at the running back position has been well-documented - in the past three years, 10 ball carriers have left the program on their own, been kicked off the team or have suffered season-ending injuries - and the black cloud has continued to hover over Iowa City this fall.

Sophomore tailback Damon Bullock missed four games with a concussion and sophomore walk-on Mark Weisman, who was one of the best early stories of the season, has missed the past two with a groin injury.

"Things happen outside of your control," said Ferentz, trying to make light of the unfortunate string of bad luck. "What's been impressive, and, at times, surprising is we've had some guys step up.

"We really thought in August that Bullock would be a good player for us even though he had never played significantly before this year.

"Weisman was obviously a great surprise, and the trick is getting him back. If we could ever get to the point where we had both him and Bullock playing at full speed, that position would be a strength, but we haven't been able to do that for six or seven weeks now."

The Hawkeyes also lost sophomore left tackle Brandon Scherff to a dislocated ankle and broken leg against Penn State Oct. 20 and three plays later saw sophomore right guard Andrew Donnal, brother of future U-M basketball player, Mark, and a candidate to play left tackle, to an ACL injury.

Those two losses, combined with Weisman's deteriorating health - the tailback originally hurt his ankle against MSU Oct. 13, played through it and then strained his groin - disrupted the only positive offensive momentum the Hawkeyes had. Overall, the Black and Gold have been floundering under first-year coordinator Greg Davis.

"There just hasn't been a chemistry between Davis and quarterback James Vandenberg," Kakert said. "Last year he threw for 3,000 yards and 25 touchdowns, and this year he has five touchdown passes. It's just really unexplainable.

"The best way to put it is Davis is running a square-peg offense with a lot of round holes. He relies on a short passing game and game-breaking talents to turn those into big plays. They almost never go down field or throw more than 10-yard routes, but that's what Vandenberg and the receiving corps are best at."

Defensively, as Kakert put it, there is "no Adrian Clayborn, Mitch King or Karl Klug, no disruptive force along the defensive line that makes the kind of plays for the entire front seven to be really good."

In other words, this team lacks playmakers on both sides of the ball, and is now fighting its confidence, which is both good news and bad news for a Michigan team that wants to wipe the floor with the Hawkeyes but needs the Black and Gold to beat Nebraska Nov. 23.

"It would take something special to beat Michigan and Nebraska and get to a bowl game," Kakert said. "The players haven't written the season off. They're going to show up and play hard and give their best effort, but if you look at it logically, they're facing two teams playing for the Legends Division championship, and there will be plenty of motivation for Michigan kids, with it being Senior Day and never have beaten Iowa.

"Then next week, more than likely, Nebraska will be playing for the chance to be in Big Ten title game.

"So the matchups certainly don't favor Iowa."

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