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Harty: This really is a must-win game

[ 0 ] October 22, 2013 |

Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz is more likely to go for it on fourth down at midfield or vacation with Urban Meyer than call any game a must win.

It’s just not Ferentz’s style to put so much emphasis on one game regardless of the circumstances because as Ferentz points out, it’s still just a sporting event.

The way Ferentz sees it, World War II was a must win, whereas Saturday’s game against Northwestern is just the next opportunity on the schedule.

And though it’s impossible to argue with that in the literal sense, there is still a place for must-wins in sports.

Kinnick Stadium will be one of those places Saturday for both Iowa and Northwestern. Ferentz won’t say it. And the Iowa players won’t say it.

So I will. Saturday’s game is a must-win for both teams, because in both cases, the margin for error has shrunk considerably.

Iowa has lost two games in a row and eight of its last nine Big Ten games dating back to last season, while Northwestern has lost three games in a row after being considered a Big Ten contender.

“It can’t be a once-in-a-while thing if you’re in conference play,” Ferentz said. “You have to be that way every week. It’s a different challenge this weekend, but an equally big challenge for us.”

Senior linebacker James Morris apparently listens to his coach because Morris said almost the exact same thing Tuesday when asked if the Northwestern game was a must-win.

“They’re all must wins,” Morris said. “When I say they’re all must-wins, I really mean that. I’m not just saying it because that’s what we’re supposed to say. That’s how I prepare and when I’m on the field, that’s how I try to play.”

Saturday’s game deserves must-win status because the loser would slip deeper into a hole in which getting out would require a quick and dramatic response against a difficult remaining schedule.

Following Saturday’s game, Iowa will face Wisconsin at home, Purdue on the road, Michigan at home and Nebraska on the road to close out the regular-season. Take away Purdue’s 1-6 record and Iowa’s final three opponents have a combined mark of 16-4.

Lose to Northwestern on Saturday and Iowa would be halfway to matching last year’s six-game skid to close the regular season. It also would be Iowa’s seventh loss in its last nine games against the Wildcats.

Fans would dwell on those two things as part of the fallout from losing.

Northwestern’s final four opponents — Nebraska, Michigan, Michigan State and Illinois — have a combined record of 20-6, with Illinois accounting for half of the losses.

At least on paper, Iowa and Northwestern might be the second-easiest opponent left on each other’s schedule, behind only Illinois and Purdue.

The vultures will circle around whatever team loses Saturday because the outlook would look bleak. The winning team hardly will be on easy street, either.

Northwestern, in less than a month, has gone from hosting ESPN Game Day and facing Ohio State in a battle of undefeated, nationally-ranked teams to losing its top two offensive skill players and now sitting in last place in the Big Ten Legend’s Division at 0-3.

Half of Northwestern’s dynamic duo of senior quarterback Kain Colter and senior running back Venric Mark are expected to play Saturday with Colter now listed on the depth chart. Colter missed Saturday’s 20-17 home loss to Minnesota because of an ankle injury, while Mark has missed the last four games with a foot injury.

Both have caused fits for the Iowa defense with their speed and elusiveness, so the Hawkeyes would catch a break if either one couldn’t play Saturday.

Iowa’s season has been more up-and-down, with the sting of losing to Northern Illinois 30-27 in the season opener erased by a four-game winning streak that has since given way to the current two-game skid.

What’s been consistent throughout, though, is the belief that Iowa is moving in the right direction after finishing 4-8 last season.

The offense is more in sync and more dynamic under second-year coordinator Greg Davis.

The defense is more accomplished up front.

And sophomore quarterback Jake Rudock has shown enough skill, moxie and intelligence to convince most fans that better days are ahead.

At some point, though, victories have to become part of the equation. Iowa and Northwestern are beyond that point, which makes Saturday’s game a must-win even if the participants won’t admit it.

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football

About Pat Harty: Columnist Pat Harty has been covering the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Press-Citizen since 1991. Originally from Des Moines, he currently writes columns and covers Hawkeye men's basketball for Hawk Central. View author profile.

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