IOWA CITY — Now it gets tough.
The Iowa Hawkeyes have pretty much met expectations after the first five games of the season, going 4-1 in five games in which they were favored. A late loss in the season-opener to Northern Illinois stung a bit for sure, but Hawkeye Nation started making noise again after trophy wins against rivals Iowa State and Minnesota. But those same fans don’t have to think too far back to remember that a good start does not guarantee a good finish. The Hawks were 4-2 last season but lost their final six games to finish 4-8.
And here comes the big boys again.
With seven games left on the schedule beginning with Michigan State for homecoming on Saturday, the Hawkeyes figure to be underdogs in perhaps six of those games. Only Purdue on Nov. 9 could provide a brief respite, but the Boilermakers kicked some corn at Kinnick Stadium last season; so even that’s no guarantee.
The Hawks begin a critical three-game stretch on Saturday with the Spartans, followed by Ohio State and Northwestern. No one outside the Iowa locker room gives the Hawks a chance against the Buckeyes, and the Wildcats have always given Iowa fits, even when they were bad. The key for Iowa would be to win at least one of the three games, perhaps two of them.
Statistically, Michigan State has the best defense in the country and has a slight edge there. But the Hawkeyes have a bigger edge on offense and special teams, plus the home-field advantage. If the defense does its job and the running game can wear down the Spartans in the second half, the Hawkeyes could steal a big victory.
Winning one or two of the next three games would put Iowa at 5-3 or 6-2 and give the Hawks a little breathing room heading into the final third of the season. At that point, Iowa could be bowl eligible and playing on house money. That would take some pressure off coach Kirk Ferentz and begin to justify in the minds of some fans his $3.8 million salary.
The Hawks finish the last month of the season against Wisconsin, Purdue, Michigan and Nebraska. Going 2-2 in November would be difficult but not impossible. That would bring 7-5 or even 8-4 into play and give athletic director Gary Barta the ammunition he needs to defend Ferentz for yet another off-season.
On the other hand, should 2012 repeat itself with a string of losses to end the season, Hawkeye Nation will quickly be making noise of a different kind.
And it won’t be cheering.