Iowa CITY, Iowa - It has reached that point. The Iowa football program, three years ago in a BCS game, Friday appeared accepting of a moral victory.
No question the Hawkeyes were disappointed with losing 13-7 to Nebraska at Kinnick Stadium. There also was a palpable sign of satisfaction from them. Enjoying a good week of practice and playing close with the No. 14 team nationally seemed to be viewed as a positive development.
It's all they had. Postseason hopes were dashed in a 42-17 loss at Michigan last week. Iowa sealed its first losing record since 2000 with the disaster in Ann Arbor.
Any positive momentum for '13 needed to come from rallying together this week and playing well against the Huskers. Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz chose to go for a win this week. Friday he played very few of his inexperienced young athletes expected to help him next fall.
"Certainly coming off a tough loss, you never know how a team is going to react there," Ferentz said. "The guys practiced with good focus, practiced hard. We competed hard today. We weren't good enough to beat Nebraska today, but we competed hard enough to beat 'em.
"That's where it all starts. If you don't compete, if you don't fight on the field, it's going to be hard to win football games. So, you know, that part of it, I thought our guys did a really good job with."
Effort hasn't been an issue very often for these Hawkeyes. They played hard at Michigan but were overmatched.
While it's a good sign that the players stuck together this week, it's hard to say that Friday's performance will be worth very much for momentum heading into the offseason. The Hawkeyes finish up with six losses in a row. That's the bottom line.
Ferentz and his coaches need to find more playmakers on both sides of the ball, whether that's coaching them up or recruiting them. They also need to do in their jobs because this team's failures go beyond the lack of player execution the head man harped on all year.
The Hawkeyes last were heading in the wrong direction in 2007 when they finished 6-6 and did not get invited to a bowl game. Iowa finished 9-4 the following year, winning it's last four games, including a victory against South Carolina in the Outback Bowl.
"It's early to say, but time will tell," Ferentz said when asked if his team could experience a turnaround like it did five years ago. "I know that's possible, but time will tell."
It's possible but not probable. This 4-8 season puts the program in a bigger hole than it sat in after '07. The schedule gets tougher with the additions of Ohio State and Wisconsin and Penn State and Indiana leaving it.
The Hawkeyes deserve credit for making Nebraska earn its Legends-Division clinching win, but it also proved to be a game built for Ferentz's conservative style. Strong winds made passing difficult. Husker Coach Bo Pelini played along with his counterpart by limiting risk and relying on his talent to win it in the second half, which it did.
Ferentz ran the ball into the line and punted for much of the third quarter with the wind in his team's face, hoping the make a play and win it in the fourth. The Hawkeyes ended up accumulating a measly 70 yards in the second half.
Senior Rex Burkhead sparked the Huskers second-half comeback. He carried 16 times for 69 yards and the game-winning touchdown after sitting out the first half with an injury.
"They've got a lot of good football players on the team," Ferentz said. "I don't know if they had one more valuable than Burkhead. He was a big part of that drive, tremendous football player. They've got a lot of good players, but to me he does something special for them."
Iowa recovered two Husker fumbles in the visitors territory but could not turn them into any points. The Hawkeyes turned it over on downs off of the first one and then punted from the Nebraska 31 yard line into the wind on the second.
The game ended for all intents and purposes on an Iowa turnover. The Hawkeyes started a drive at their 27 with 3:31 on the clock. Instead of moving down the field, Nebraska's Alonzo Whaley intercepted James Vandenberg on the third play from scrimmage.
"That was hard," Pelini said of the game. "We knew it was going to be that way. We told out team that with everything Iowa had going on with it being senior day and that whole deal."
Instead of finding a way to win, Iowa did just enough to lose…again. It turned out to be the epithet for '12.
Ferentz will hold a press conference this week to further discuss the future of his program. He previewed that gathering by showing much more faith in his team than is a good portion of his fan base.
"We've got some good players on our football team," Ferentz said. "There's no reason we can't be successful. We fully realize we have a lot of work to do right now."
Hard work has equaled success for Ferentz during most of his 14-year tenure leading Iowa. The Dean of Big Ten coaches has been known as someone who does more with less.
The Iowa faithful better hope Ferentz can do it again. With a prohibitive buyout to his contract that runs to 2020, he's unlikely headed anywhere soon even if
the fans or AD Gary Barta wish him gone.
These are tough times in Hawkeye Nation. Friday did nothing to change the outlook.