LUKE MEREDITH, AP Sports Writer
IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Iowa’s recent stumbles have left the program playing for bowl eligibility instead of a championship.
It’s been like that nearly every season since 2010 for the Hawkeyes, which has left open the possibility that last year’s 12-2 record was more of an anomaly than the start of an upswing.
A loss to No. 3 Michigan (9-0, 6-0 Big Ten) on Saturday would leave Iowa (5-4, 3-3) with at least five losses for the sixth time in seven years. Although the Hawkeyes still technically can win the West, the much more likely post-season scenario involves a forgettable bowl to cap a disappointing season.
Iowa hosts the Wolverines as a 20-point underdog, its largest such line in recent memory.
“Historically it’s a real fine line for us. We really have to be doing everything right. We have to be relatively healthy, and you have to make your own breaks,” coach Kirk Ferentz said. “All you can do as a coach is ask them to do their best. I think the guys are doing that.”
On offense, Iowa has reached a point where some struggles seem inevitable. The loss of wide receiver Matt VandeBerg and the limited role that injured tight end George Kittle can provide in the passing game has robbed the Hawkeyes of the ability to threaten opposing defenses through the air.
But perhaps the most perplexing thing about Iowa’s inconsistency is that many of its same defensive starters played crucial roles in 2015.
Corner back Desmond King, defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson and Josey Jewell returned to anchor a unit that fell apart against a decent offense for the second time this season last week. The Hawkeyes, who let up 38 points in a loss to Northwestern, allowed a staggering 599 yards of offense in last week’s 41-14 blowout loss at Penn State.
According to defensive end Parker Hesse, the unit’s performance against the Nittany Lions could be attributed to a lack of detail.
It wasn’t one glaring deficiency that bogged down the Hawkeyes, but rather a series of small mistakes that added up to a big loss in a key moment in the season.
That’s a troubling sign for a program that prides itself on doing the little things well.
“That’s kind of the way it’s been in our losses this year, and that’s something we have to work on,” Hesse said. “It’s different things. But it’s more a mindset of always being on top of our stuff at all times.”
Despite the fact that an underwhelming season appears likely to be Iowa’s fate, the program isn’t in quite the precarious situation it was in prior to last season.
The Hawkeyes gleaming new facility has already paid off, with Iowa in line for its best recruiting class in years come February. The contract extension that coach Kirk Ferentz signed earlier this season should also help the Hawkeyes bring in more talented players lured by the stability of the coaching staff.
But Iowa still has three games and possibly a bowl bid to play for in 2016. Those matchups represent a chance for the Hawkeyes to regain their momentum heading into the offseason — but that can only happen if they get back to trusting each other as much as they did a year ago.
“Everybody just has to do a better job of focusing on their job, making sure they’re not trying to compensate for anybody else,” running back LeShun Daniels Jr. said. “It’s more of a trust factor, getting back to believing in each other, that we can do it if we put our minds to it.”
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