The Ottumwa Courier

October 29, 2008

Hawkeye fans have reason for optimism

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — For many Iowa fans, it’s the perfect cocktail.

Take two convincing wins, throw in a bye week to let the good vibes marinate and bingo — the Hawks are back!

Surely they’ll roll over Illinois for the sixth time in a row, and give No. 3 Penn State all it can handle in Kinnick Stadium on Nov. 8.

A sound thumping of Purdue will follow, and the Hawkeyes will close out Minnesota’s stay in the Metrodome with a rousing victory, clutching the Floyd of Rosedale trophy in one hand and a marquee bowl bid in the other.

It’s a scenario that’s exciting to Hawkeye fans, but it should come with a warning. Like most cocktails, this is one best enjoyed in moderation.

Iowa (5-3, 2-2 Big Ten) will likely be underdogs in three of their final four games, starting Saturday when they travel to face the Illini.

But Iowa supporters who have been disappointed time and time again the past few years are all too eager to dream up best-case scenarios.

“Geez, people (are) getting ahead of themselves. Is that the opposite of everybody dooming and glooming?” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz joked Tuesday. “Usually if you lose a couple of games, everything is terrible and the sky is falling. And if you win a couple, boy, everything is great and let’s book those reservations now. I think everybody realizes it’s a long season.”

As much as Ferentz would like to downplay the hype, it’s no secret that the Hawkeyes have looked much stronger since early October.

Iowa’s offense has sprung to life behind Heisman Trophy hopeful Shonn Greene. The Hawkeyes averaged 16.8 points per game against Iowa State, Pittsburgh, Northwestern and Michigan State, but they scored 83 in their last two wins over Indiana and Wisconsin.

While Greene has gotten much of the credit for that, Iowa has also gotten strong performances from its offensive line and consistent play from quarterback Ricky Stanzi, who has settled in as the starter.

All of a sudden, an offense that couldn’t get that extra score when it needed one during a three-game losing streak is third in the Big Ten at 29.8 points a game. The challenge going forward, Ferentz said, will be to maintain a balance between the running and passing game. That way, defenses can’t key solely on Greene.

“I think our passing game is improving,” Ferentz said. “If we’re playing offense well, it’s going to mean that we’re going to have the capability of doing both.”

Then there’s Iowa’s defense, which hasn’t let up since August. The Hawkeyes are fifth in the nation at just 11.5 points allowed per game and first in the Big Ten in red zone defense.

“The focus there is being consistent. Not losing sleep over the 6-yard gains, but being consistent and being smart,” Ferentz said.

The Illini (4-4, 2-3) present a unique challenge, having been up and down all season. Illinois is clearly not as strong as a year ago, when they reached the Rose Bowl, but the Illini have shown the ability to score in bunches.

Illinois has broken the 40-point barrier four times in eight games, scoring 45 on rebuilding Michigan and 55 on woeful Indiana. The Illini should also be geared up to face the Hawkeyes, both because of their recent woes against Iowa and the fact that their bowl-eligibility hopes might be on the line. They close the season against No. 13 Ohio State and at Northwestern.

So while many Iowa fans are getting fired up over the prospect of a strong finish, the Hawkeyes know they can’t afford to think of anyone but Illinois.

“If you look at the schedule, all the games are winnable. But at the same time, they’re all loseable,” linebacker A.J. Edds said. “If we get focused on worrying about all that stuff, we’ll look at ourselves in a couple of weeks and still have five, maybe six wins.”