IOWA CITY, Iowa — Iowa hasn’t looked like a Big Ten title contender in weeks.
Yet with the season halfway over, that’s exactly what the Hawkeyes are.
Iowa (4-2, 2-1 Big Ten) slogged its way through the first half of 2016, racking up ugly victories with a pair of defeats that were even uglier. But the Hawkeyes have already won twice on the road in league play, and West division favorites Wisconsin and Nebraska still have to play in Iowa City.
Iowa will look to extend the nation’s third-longest road winning streak to nine games with a visit to Purdue (3-2, 1-1) this weekend.
“When things are tough in low-scoring games, we’re just going to put our head down and keep working and not really focus on the score,” linebacker Ben Niemann said. “If it’s 3-0 or 45-40, if you come out with the win that’s the main thing that matters.”
The most perplexing part of Iowa’s slow start was the languid play of its offensive line. A few tweaks ahead of last week’s 14-7 win at Minnesota seemed to fix things.
The Hawkeyes moved three of its starters into different spots, and guard/tackle Ike Boettger said the shakeup helped boost the line’s confidence.
Quarterback C.J. Beathard, sacked six times in a 38-31 loss to Northwestern, was taken down just once last week. The running game, which had disappeared at points this season, produced the game-winning score — a 54-yard touchdown run by Akrum Wadley. That play was reminiscent of 2015, when Iowa often broke the backs of worn-out defenses with long runs in the second half.
“Guys believed that we could do it. Things aren’t always going to go the way we want them too, but just keep pushing and eventually good things will happen,” Boettger said.
Iowa’s defense, helped in part by the offense’s ability to control time of possession, played one of its best games of the season. The Hawkeyes, who were repeatedly gashed in a 38-31 loss to Northwestern on Oct. 1, held Minnesota to just 102 yards rushing, picked off quarterback Mitch Leidner twice and forced nine punts.
But to say that Iowa is set up for a run would be a stretch.
The Hawkeyes have struggled with their passing game since star wide receiver Matt VandeBerg went down for the season with a foot injury. Last week, Beathard threw for just 142 yards with two interceptions in 31 attempts.
“If we’re going to be a good football team, all of those guys better be better in November or we’re going to be out of luck,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of his receivers and tight ends.
Iowa’s run defense, while much better last week, is just eighth in the Big Ten at 169.3 yards allowed per game.
Still, Iowa has proven to be resilient, a trait shared by Ferentz’s best teams. And if the Hawkeyes can find some life in the passing game and continue to improve in stopping the run, their goal of getting back to the league title game remains in play.
“It’s a week to week thing, and really what I think is important is … to keep our focus on trying to grow,” Ferentz said. “You have to navigate through the bumps.”