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Column: Iowa’s toughness an asset in Big Ten

Scott Dochterman, CR Gazette –

IOWA CITY — It’s time Iowa fans stepped away from the ledge, take a seat and order a barley pop.

Iowa’s 31-13 domination over Minnesota on Saturday proved the Hawkeyes are as capable as anyone in the Big Ten’s roulette wheel of attrition of playing in December. That doesn’t mean the Hawkeyes are perfect or even good. But it does show Iowa isn’t terrible and has potential. In late September, that means something.

The Hawkeyes are 3-2 in a season where most of us had them at 5-0 or at worst 4-1 through five games. A week ago after a 32-31 loss to Central Michigan, some questioned whether the team could win another game. After overpowering Minnesota, the Hawkeyes seem capable of beating just about anyone in the Big Ten.

“Are we where we wanted to be at this time? No, we’re not,” Iowa linebacker James Morris said. “I think those were all winnable games that we lost. But we can’t do anything now. But I like where we are going into the next phase. I feel good about what we’re capable of, and I think if we continue and improve, we’re going to be happy at the end of November.”

November seems a long ways away, especially to those of us receiving political calls on a daily basis. But Morris has a point and he’s right. Iowa has established a physical tempo on offense, led by the left side of its offensive line. Sophomore tackle Brandon Scherff and senior guard Matt Tobin routinely blasted holes in Minnesota’s defense for running back Mark Weisman. Iowa rushed for 7.3 yards per carry against the Gophers, and Weisman often reached the second level before he was touched.

Weisman brings toughness and power, as demonstrated with a 17-yard run midway through the third quarter. He burst off Scherff’s block and launched Minnesota safety Derrick Wells with a Weisman stiff arm. Weisman had 155 yards at halftime and 177 yards overall.

With that level of toughness comes pride. Minnesota’s coaches and players touted their physical nature of play after last week’s win against Syracuse. Iowa’s players and coaches took it as a challenge.

“I don’t make it a point to go around and say, ‘Hey we’re physical, hey we’re this,’” Morris said. “If you’re physical, people are going to notice. They’re going to say it. Anytime you’re sort of self-promoting, it’s a challenge. We took that to heart. We said, ‘OK, they think they’re physical. We’re going to try and show them what physical is.’ I thought we did that.”

Even Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz, when asked about Minnesota’s physical play, quickly retorted, “We’re supposed to be physical anyway. I don’t care who we’re playing.

“They said last week they’re more physical, and they are. They’re athletic, and they are. This whole league is physical. We always try to be physical.”

Iowa’s benchmark is its gradual level of improvement in most seasons, especially with young clubs. We’ve seen this situation before, where the Hawkeyes started slow and finished strong. Eight years ago, the Hawkeyes were 2-2 and ambushed 44-7 at Arizona State. The Hawkeyes regrouped with a sophomore quarterback, a rental car at running back and a dominant defense to tie for the Big Ten title.

Four years ago, Iowa started 3-3 with a quarterback controversy and an inexperienced offensive line. The Hawkeyes overcame their flaws, finished 6-1 and were the Big Ten’s best team by season’s end.

I’m not suggesting Iowa can mount another run like those seasons. But it’s possible to make strides on a similar trajectory through this season. And it’s not like the Big Ten has any teams capable of showing up and beating anyone on their worst day.

In our insane world of instant analysis, every team’s deficiencies are magnified after a loss and shielded after a win. No matter how putrid a one-point defeat to Central Michigan stinks, smashing the Gophers smells like Roses.

“It’s huge. We needed this,” Morris said. “To start the conference 1-0 right now, it’s not going to mean anything in a few weeks, but it’s just great to get back on the winning side.

“Nothing’s over. It’s certainly not over. I think it’s just maybe the beginning of the next phase of our season.”

That’s why no team symbolizes the Big Ten like Iowa. The league is more down than up, and Iowa certainly gives that vibe. The Hawkeyes continue to struggle with the passing game and mounting a pass rush. Every team has flaws and every team is beatable, including Iowa.

But so is everybody else.

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