Commentary: Mystery of the disappearing football team


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MINNEAPOLIS — If you're looking for an explanation of Iowa's late-season collapse, its pedestrian 7-5 record, or its inexcusable 27-24 loss to Minnesota, you're better suited reading another column.

What has happened to the Hawkeyes in the season's second half is truly inexplicable.

The loss to Wisconsin was acceptable. The Badgers just won a share of the Big Ten title. The defeat at Northwestern was understandable. Dan Persa played the game of his life and could be the conference's MVP. The loss to Ohio State was reasonable. The Buckeyes will get a BCS bid.

But losing to hapless Minnesota — a team that had lost 12 of its last 15 games going into the Nov. 27 matchup? Yeah, that's pretty hard for me to explain.

Perhaps what's most interesting is that head coach Kirk Ferentz and his players can't seem to pinpoint what has gone wrong, either. Instead of narrowing down specifics, players spoke in platitudes during postgame interviews. They talked about the need to execute better, to come together as a team, to play better and work harder.

"We've lost three straight, and every one's a different story," Ferentz said. "I don't know if it's hard to explain, but it's no easier to digest — that's for sure."

Defensive tackle Karl Klug tried to pinpoint the problem, saying, "I feel like we've got the right guys here. It's just, I don't know …"

And that's the thing: Talking with players, they almost seemed helpless about the results. It's like something intangible overtook this team at the halfway point of the season. A senior-laden, top-10-preseason team doesn't just completely fall apart for no reason.

And yet, no one has the answer.

The defense is an obvious place to start. The unit has been ravaged by injuries — the Hawks played backups at all three linebacker positions and both cornerbacks at some points during the Minnesota game — and the squad has given up 20-plus points during the team's three-game losing streak.

The Gophers — a team that came into the Nov. 27 contest ranked 10th in the conference and 78th in the Football Bowl Subdivision in total offense — put up 27 points and more than 200 rushing yards on Iowa.

But when you ask players why, they revert again to the platitudes. Defensive end Adrian Clayborn even said, "I have no idea," he said. "I mean, if you can watch the film and tell me, I'd be pretty happy."

Other reasons have been levied since the Minnesota loss. Poor coaching, especially the offensive play-calling. Shoddy special-teams play, especially in the Hawkeyes' early losses. A lack of leadership, especially after a fight reportedly broke out in the Iowa locker room following its loss to Ohio State.

These are all fair critiques — the result of a frustrated fan base that hoped for so much and received so little. But I can't help but think the true reason is something much less tangible.

In Iowa's highly orchestrated postgame interviews, perhaps it's ironic that the tight-lipped Clayborn gave the best reason of them all. When asked what's missing with the Hawkeyes, he simply said, "A will to win, I guess."

Maybe it's as simple as that.

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