Pursuit of perfection

Iowa can’t let win over PSU be its defining moment

Iowa wide receiver Charlie Jones (16) celebrates his touchdown with receiver Keagan Johnson (6) and tight end Sam LaPorta (84) against Penn State in Iowa City. (AP Photo/Matthew Putney)

In 2002, the Iowa football team reeled off nine consecutive victories after a stunning home loss to rival Iowa State. An 11-1 regular season had fans playing the “what-if” game the rest of the way with BCS national championship scenarios — theories I still hear from time to time nearly 20 years later.

Here’s the problem, though: football doesn’t work that way. Yes, Iowa might have gone undefeated. But a win over the Cyclones easily could have been followed by a loss of focus and, consequently, games.

In short, maybe the adversity in Iowa City back then was just what the Hawkeyes needed to galvanize their spirit the rest of the way, and the Orange Bowl berth happened because of that defeat, not in spite of it. The big picture in football is always filled with moving parts.

This leads us into a discussion about the Penn State game. Last Saturday’s win in a Top-5 showdown with the Nittany Lions was undoubtedly seismic. Hawkeyes young and old won’t soon forget the electric atmosphere at Kinnick Stadium, or the fact that it pushed Iowa into its highest national ranking since 1985.

Yet it won’t mean much if the Hawkeyes suddenly stumble as a heavy favorite on Saturday against Purdue. Or in the weeks to come at Wisconsin and Northwestern, at home against Minnesota and Illinois, and in Lincoln on Black Friday to close the regular season on Nov. 26.

The Penn State victory simply afforded Iowa the opportunity to continue to dream big in 2021. It was a massive triumph, but it only counts as one — same as this week. Wins and losses are relative to what a team learns about itself and the progress it shows moving forward.

The Hawkeyes have a clear path to the Big Ten’s West Division crown. They’re the best and most complete team in the field, and at the moment, it really isn’t even close. The East — with current Top-10 programs Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State — will continue to beat up on each other and sort itself out accordingly. The last squad standing should be facing the Hawkeyes in Indianapolis on Dec. 4.

Will Iowa still be undefeated and in the national title hunt at that point? Only time will tell. The Hawkeyes are far from a perfect outfit, but they don’t have to be world beaters to put themselves in position for a special finish from here on out. The Penn State triumph helped solidify that opportunity.

There’s a difference between an opportunity and a certainty, though. College football is oftentimes a messy, imperfect sport. Wisconsin and Nebraska won’t go quietly on their home turf. They’re both struggling, which may actually make the Badgers and Cornhuskers more dangerous against Iowa this time around.

Talking heads labeled last Saturday’s game the biggest at Kinnick Stadium since No. 1 Iowa defeated second-ranked Michigan on a last-second field goal in 1985. If the Hawks stumble down the stretch, though, the victory over the Nittany Lions may only be remembered as a special moment instead of the springboard to a truly iconic season.

The win was fun while it lasted. Iowa did something about it. Now it’s up to the Hawkeyes to do something with it.

Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. Contact him via email at sports@messengernews.net, or on Twitter @ByEricPratt


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