Iowa set for make-or-break stretch

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — It’s hard not to wonder whether Iowa’s season is about to fall apart.

The next month will show exactly where the program stands during coach Kirk Ferentz’s 16th season.

Iowa’s rush defense, once a driving force behind the team’s success, was broken down repeatedly in the last two games. The Hawkeyes (5-2, 2-1 Big Ten) also are thinner at linebacker now that Reggie Spearman has been suspended for two games due to being charged last weekend with drunken driving.

The offense remains among the worst in the Big Ten, and the sudden departure of promising freshman wide receiver Derrick Willies will further test Iowa’s ability to stretch defenses.

And don’t forget, the Hawkeyes haven’t beaten a team currently over .500 either. That’s a troubling sign as Iowa kicks off a stretch of five games in 28 days on Saturday against Northwestern (3-4, 2-2), the last team below .500 left on the schedule.

“I just know moving forward if we don’t tackle well and don’t protect the football, it’s going to be tough to win. It’s tough to win in this conference doing that. That is the bottom line. We have to play better,” Ferentz said.

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The Hawkeyes likely needed as much time as possible to fix that leaky rush defense, which allowed 528 rushing yards in its last two games, a 45-29 win over Indiana and a 38-31 loss to Maryland. But while giving up big gains to star Hoosiers back Tevin Coleman might be understandable, allowing 212 yards to a Maryland team averaging just 3.3 per carry in the Big Ten was disconcerting.

“We didn’t tackle well enough. We didn’t take rally to the ball as well as we should have,” linebacker Quinton Alston said. “They had some good schemes. I’ll give the coaches over there some credit too. But we’ve just got to get back to our basics and trust our fundamentals.”.

The Hawkeyes can likely survive the loss of backup running back LeShun Daniels Jr., Who Ferentz said should be out roughly six weeks with an undisclosed injury. Daniels saw only 14 carries through seven games behind Mark Weisman and Jordan Canzeri.

Willies’ unexpected transfer, though, could have long-term ramifications. The 6-foot-4 Willies appeared to have a bright future in Iowa City, especially after a good showing during the spring game in April. Ferentz went out of his way to praise his work ethic and demeanor in the months that followed.

But Willies got limited snaps playing behind starter Tevaun Smith, catching just four passes for 71 yards this season. On Monday night, he met with Ferentz and told him he planned to move closer to his father, who is battling health issues in Arizona.

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Ferentz said Willies didn’t mention playing time as a reason for his departure.

“If he has a change of heart in the near future, that would be fine. But I’m not counting on it. It kind of came out of thin air,” Ferentz said.

Struggles aside, Iowa remains in a good position in the Big Ten West. The Hawkeyes close with three home games out of five, and if they win out, they’ll win the division.

But without major progress over the next few weeks, a collapse could be imminent.

“Our goals are still pretty much intact from the start of the season. It hasn’t gone the way we planned, I’d say. But it never does,” Weisman said. “You’ve got to go through ups and downs of a game, a season. Whatever it may be, you’ve got to bounce back.”.

Follow Luke Meredith on Twitter: www.Twitter.Com/LukeMeredithAP.

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