Improved Iowa still needs finishing school

The jury isn't out on Iowa, which has provided enough evidence of an improved product this season. But the book on the 2013 Hawkeyes is still being written.

Kirk Ferentz's team already boasts more wins (5) than it did in 2012. Barring a clunker Saturday against slumping Purdue, the Hawkeyes will become bowl eligible. Their defense is salty against the run and boasts one of the Big Ten's best linebacking groups with James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey. Their offense looks competent for stretches, which is more than can be said for last season's unit.

So yes, this is a better Hawkeyes team. But how much better? Iowa didn't exactly set a high bar coming out of last season. A 6-win season won't get Hawkeye fans too excited about the future, especially with only one of the victories coming against an opponent with a winning record (Minnesota). The true assessment of this Iowa team will come in the next few weeks.

Iowa needs to finish well, both in games and in the larger context of its season.

The Hawkeyes haven't kicked all of their old habits from 2012. Their red-zone offense still leaves much to be desired, despite a good offensive line and a powerful lead back in Mark Weisman, a 236-pound junior.

Iowa has scored only 16 touchdowns in 35 trips to the red zone this season, the second fewest in the Big Ten next to Purdue, the nation's 120th-rated offense. The Hawkeyes are tied for fourth in the Big Ten in red zone chances with 35 -- the same as teams like Wisconsin and Michigan -- but when it comes to finishing drives, they're coming up short.

It's not quite as bad as last season, when Iowa had a Big Ten-low 18 red zone touchdowns on 38 opportunities, including only five pass touchdowns. But finishing drives will be key to Iowa finishing the season the right way.

"It's a little different," Hawkeyes offensive tackle Brandon Scherff told ESPN.com. "We've handled it a little better than last year, but we've got to keep improving, focus on the smaller things and know where you're going so you can play fast in those situations."

Iowa's red-zone struggles proved costly last Saturday against Wisconsin. In the first half, the Hawkeyes had drives of 11 and 13 plays reach the red zone but had to settle for field goals each time. Weisman had fourth-down conversions on each drive, but he and fellow back Damon Bullock found little space to run near the goal line. A dropped pass by Kevonte Martin-Manley ended the first drive, while a false start penalty on guard Andrew Donnal at the Wisconsin 3-yard line doomed the second.

The Hawkeyes controlled play for much of the first half but trailed 7-6 at the break. The third quarter brought another red zone opportunity and another field goal, as Iowa couldn't advance past Wisconsin's 12-yard line.

"When you get down in there and you can't come away with a touchdown, you're not going to beat [Wisconsin] just kicking field goals," Ferentz said. "We challenge our whole team. That's the objective. I don't think anybody wants to settle for field goals. If it's the best you can do, then you do that, but everybody wants touchdowns."

Iowa's challenge isn't only to finish drives, but to finish games. The Hawkeyes have been outscored 71-27 in the fourth quarter this season, including 33-0 in their past four Big Ten contests.

They survived the Northwestern game, thanks to some strong defense and Wildcats crunch-time errors. But the fading offense cost Iowa in losses to Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin.

"It's a big emphasis for us," Scherff said. "We've played well in the first half. We've just got take that mentality and finish a full 60 minutes."

Finishing drives, finishing games and finishing the season. It all will determine the degree of Iowa's improvement, and how excited to get for the 2014 season.