Does Iowa have a conditioning problem?
The mere suggestion would be swiftly dismissed during most of Kirk Ferentz's tenure as Hawkeyes coach.
Iowa's success during the Ferentz era can be directly tied to its strength and conditioning program, which consistently takes unheralded prospects and develops them into All-Big Ten candidates who outwork the competition. There's a reason why Iowa strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle makes more money than many major-conference coordinators, and why Ferentz stuck by Doyle during the rhabdomyolosis outbreak in January.
But Iowa's recent losses have led some to question one of the program's fundamental values. The Hawkeyes blew fourth-quarter leads in each of their final three regular-season games in 2010, losing all three contests. If not for Micah Hyde's interception return for a touchdown against Missouri in the Insight Bowl, it might have been four consecutive blown leads.
Then came Saturday's game at Iowa State, where Iowa took a 24-17 lead with 5:50 to play. Needing a defensive stop to seal the win, Iowa allowed Iowa State to march 59 yards in 13 plays. The Cyclones converted on third-and-15, third-and-20 and fourth-and-1 before scoring the tying touchdown. Iowa ended up losing 44-41 in three overtimes.
Iowa may or may not have a conditioning problem, but the Hawkeyes appear to have a finishing problem.
"Not finishing the game is always frustrating," linebacker Christian Kirksey told ESPN.com. "Especially in a rivalry game, when you lose, there's nothing good about that."
Iowa's conditioning level, particularly on defense, will be tested Saturday against Pittsburgh.
I spent some time on Pitt's campus last week and spotted many students wearing T-shirts that read: "High Octane Football." It's the motto new Pitt coach Todd Graham has brought to the program, and it stems mainly from the tempo Graham demands from his spread offense.
"This isn't nanotechnology or nuclear science," Graham told a crowd of Pitt fans this spring. "We are going to mentally and physically wear you out."
Graham's Tulsa team was one of only eight FBS programs to run more than 1,000 offensive plays in 2010. The quick pace worked as Tulsa ranked fifth nationally in total offense (505.6 ypg) and sixth in scoring (41.4 ppg).
Graham wants to snap the ball within five seconds of when it is marked for play and keeps his offense in hurry-up mode throughout the game.
Although Pitt hasn't been nearly as explosive as Graham's old squad in its first two games -- the Panthers average 35 points and 395.5 yards -- only seven FBS teams have run more plays than Pitt's 156.
"You're going to see the quarterback option attack, throwing the football, a lot of plays, fast-paced," Ferentz said.
The pace shouldn't be new to Iowa after facing Iowa State last week, Missouri in the bowl game and teams like Northwestern and Michigan last season. Graham has three former Michigan assistants, including co-offensive coordinator Calvin Magee, on his staff at Pitt.
"We've played a lot of teams that are high-paced," Kirksey said, "so throughout practice you've got to make sure you fly around to the ball, keep that high tempo and be aggressive."
Iowa endured a stretch of close losses in 2007 and in the first part of 2008 before reversing the trend and turning into arguably the nation's most clutch team in 2009. Saturday's game marks a chance for the Hawkeyes to regain a bit of momentum and for the defense to prove it can outlast a fast-paced foe.
"We're a pretty conditioned team," said Kirksey, who led Iowa with 13 tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery against Iowa State. "It just makes us want to work harder. Now we know it can go over 60 minutes because we've seen it in overtime. It just makes us push more and become better as a team.
"We will finish a game."