The Day After: Hawkeyes In The Picture In West Mess

Mekhi Sargent leaps into the end zone for a fourth-quarter touchdown.Jeffrey Becker/USA Today Sports
John Bohnenkamp

It seemed that it would be difficult to win the Big Ten West Division with two losses.

Wisconsin’s loss to Illinois on Saturday, though, threw the race open heading into the final five games of the season.

And suddenly Iowa, who needed to go unbeaten in the second half of the season against West teams and then get some help from others, has a better chance.

Minnesota, at 7-0 overall and 4-0 in the Big Ten, has the most control. The Gophers still have Iowa and Wisconsin remaining — the Hawkeyes on the road, the Badgers at home — and a home game against Penn State.

Wisconsin (6-1, 3-1) plays at Ohio State this Saturday. The Badgers also have those games against Iowa and Minnesota, as well as a road game to Nebraska.

Iowa (5-2, 2-2) has those games with Minnesota and Wisconsin, and has to play at Nebraska.

Nebraska (4-3, 2-2) has Wisconsin and Nebraska at home, but the other games are at home against Indiana, at Purdue and at Maryland.

The Hawkeyes were heading to their locker room after Saturday’s 26-20 win over Purdue when Illinois hit the game-winning field goal against the Badgers.

They weren’t taking anything for granted.

“In this league, anything can happen,” safety Geno Stone said. “That’s why you have to be ready every week.”

“Obviously, on paper, it says we should win this game, we should dominate,” defensive end A.J. Epenesa said. “But games aren’t typically like that.

“You have to come into a game with a chip on your shoulder. Because teams are going to come into your house, and they’re going to want to beat you.”

“Well, I think the lesson is that football, conference football at least, I think is tough,” coach Kirk Ferentz said. “It's my 30th year in this league now and it's really hard to predict what's going to happen and when people start thinking that they know the answers ahead of time, boy, that's when bad things happen. So I have no idea what happened in that game other than I heard the score.

“The other important lesson for our team is you keep playing, you keep playing and celebrate a win. My mentor, near the end of his life, said celebrate a good block, and we don't do that enough. When you win a game, celebrate, enjoy it, feel good about it and then we'll critique it tomorrow and worry about it then. But the whole idea is just keep pushing forward and have a good week and put it to bed the next day and keep going.”

The other takeaways from Saturday:

Losing Brandon Smith could hurt

Wide receiver Brandon Smith had nine catches for 106 yards, but left in the fourth quarter with an injury to his right leg.

Ferentz said news about Smith’s injury appeared “positive,” but a final diagnosis wasn’t available in the post-game.

The Hawkeyes have depth in the wide receiver room. Ihmir Smith-Marsette had three catches for 57 yards, including a one-hander in the first quarter. Nico Ragaini had six catches for 31 yards. Tyrone Tracy had three catches for 28 yards. And any sort of Smith absence could be covered by Oliver Martin.

Still, Smith has been a big part of this offense and would be missed if his absence was long. The good news is, after Saturday’s game at Northwestern, the Hawkeyes have their second bye week of the season.

A better running game

Mekhi Sargent’s two runs for 35 yards, the last one for a touchdown, wrapped up the win.

It also pushed the Hawkeyes over 100 yards rushing for the day, something they haven’t done in the last two games, both losses.

Iowa will have to have that kind of production in the coming weeks. The Hawkeyes’ offense was too unbalanced, and that’s quite un-Ferentz-like.

Duncan’s boots

Kicker Keith Duncan continues to be one of the best stories of this season.

Duncan had four field goals on Saturday. He has 17 for the season, the most in Football Bowl Subdivision play, and his .895 field goal percentage is 14th overall.

Sleep-Dalton’s boots

Punter Michael Sleep-Dalton had a good day, with four punts for an average of 47.2 yards. He had a long of 63 yards, and dropped two inside the Purdue 20.

As the weather gets cooler, it will be interesting to see how he does — Sleep-Dalton, from Australia, said he was looking forward to punting in colder weather after kicking at Arizona State.