IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Iowa entered the season's midway point looking like the most skilled team in the Big Ten West.
Consecutive road losses to Penn State and Purdue have left the Hawkeyes likely playing just for pride and a decent bowl bid.
Iowa (6-3, 3-3 Big Ten), which has often been known for getting the most out of oft-modest talent under longtime coach Kirk Ferentz, sits at just .500 in the league and out of this week's Top 25 despite a cadre of future pros on its roster.
"The biggest thing for us moving forward right now is moving forward. That takes mental toughness. We can't be looking back or worry about the what-ifs," Ferentz said. "Circumstances are always changing...it really gets down to your ability to focus on what's important."
The Hawkeyes, whose point differential remains higher than the team that was 9-0 at this point three years ago, hosts Northwestern (5-4, 5-1) on Saturday. They're favored to win by 10 points — despite trailing by two games in the standings — in a last-ditch effort to remain relevant in the West.
"We just want to play our best football," senior Iowa defensive end Parker Hesse said. "I think it's a testament to this team that we've stuck together. We've had two really tough losses in a row now. But no one is pointing fingers. No one is looking to blame anyone else."
These Hawkeyes might be one of Ferentz's most gifted teams, but they're also one of his most frustrating given that all three of their losses were winnable late in the fourth quarter. A few penalties that could've gone either way didn't help their cause in last week's 38-36 loss at Purdue.
But Iowa has put itself in such last-minute peril in part because it can't run the ball — and thus control the tempo — like it has in the past.
The Hawkeyes have three sophomore running backs who've looked at times like solid Big Ten starters. But they're also just 79th nationally with 157 yards a game on the ground.
It's not like Iowa hasn't tried to establish the run, attempting about 40 rushes a game. But the Hawkeyes' paltry 3.9 yards per carry — and the fact that they've yet to spring a back for a 100-yard game — has put extra pressure on junior quarterback Nate Stanley to carry them.
Stanley has just one TD throw in his last two games after a recent stretch of 14 in just four.
"We want to strive for 4.5 (yards per carry). Or at least four," center Keegan Render said. "There are just a couple of (missed assignments) that you can't have this late in the season."
Iowa's defense has hit a rough patch after a strong start too, allowing 30 points in a six-point loss to the Nittany Lions and 38 last week at West Lafayette. Even though the Hawkeyes still rank second-best in the Big Ten in scoring defense, those performances prompted a team meeting by that unit — one led by its senior leaders.
"I think some young guys, after two straight losses, they kind of lose sight of what we're trying to do, which is to go to work every day and get better and win games," end Sam Brincks said.
Despite the fact that bragging rights and a sunny postseason trip are likely all the Hawkeyes have left on the table, there's a strong possibility that they'll end the regular season on a high note.
After hosting the Wildcats, Iowa might also be a double-digit favorite in its last two games — at Illinois and at home against Nebraska on the day after Thanksgiving.
"We're only three, four possessions away from being undefeated. So, it just comes down to finishing," safety Amani Hooker said.