Picking up the pieces: Iowa

Kirk Ferentz looked like a politician Tuesday as he leaned forward, wearing a red tie, and fielded questions about his Iowa Hawkeyes. He alternated between taking sips of coffee and water, while topics ranged from Jake Rudock's interceptions to the lack of a pass rush.

Despite everything that was discussed, Tuesday's news conference basically revolved around one simple theme: Is losing a close 30-27 game to MAC school Northern Illinois part of the new normal for Iowa?

The Hawkeyes' longtime coach has more questions than answers right now. Surely he'd like to think this is just part of some unlucky trend -- one that's seen him lose five times by a field goal or less in the last 12 games -- but the point is it's a losing trend. And Ferentz hasn't yet found a way to reverse it.

Iowa fell to Central Michigan last season 32-31, and lost to the Huskies on Saturday. Ferentz last lost to a MAC team in 2007. Before that? In 2000, his second year as head coach.

Maybe Ferentz's best days are behind him; maybe not. That's not something that was answered by just the Northern Illinois game, a matchup that pitted the best player in the MAC -- dual-threat QB Jordan Lynch -- against a defense that averaged about a sack a game in 2012.

But Ferentz knows what his team has to do to find a favorable solution. The Hawkeyes must pick up the pieces and limit turnovers and big plays.

"The next step," he said, "is you need to learn how to win."

This is just the first bell in a 12-round bout, but the Hawkeyes are reeling right now. This loss isn't nearly on the same scale as other upsets over the weekend. It's still painful, but Iowa isn't South Florida. There are still reasons for fans clad in black and yellow to cheer.

For one, this offense might not be near the best in the Big Ten -- but it's no longer anemic. It rushed for 202 yards Saturday, a full 99 yards more than last season's average. Mark Weisman reached the century mark rushing and averaged 5 yards a carry.

Rudock tossed an interception that led to the Huskies' game-winning field goal, but he threw for 256 yards -- 69 yards more than the Iowa norm in 2012. So what, then, is holding this offense back? Why did it manage to score only two touchdowns?

No doubt Ferentz will be breaking down the film and looking for answers. But offensive coordinator Greg Davis needs to take some of the blame here. He curiously abstained from using his running backs on third-and-short during the second half and, on a key third-and-9 play late in the game, he called Kevonte Martin-Manley's number ... on a bubble screen. The play went for 1 yard.

The pass-rush seems nonexistent and the secondary is still adjusting without Micah Hyde. But after the first game, this doesn't appear to be a bad team -- at least not worse than last year. It's a losing team right now, but there is a difference.

Ferentz will continue to field these questions until winning once again becomes a trend. Iowa should get an easy victory in Week 2 from Missouri State. But the hopes for a successful season seem pinned on Week 3, at Iowa State.

Iowa didn't pass its first test, but it showed potential. If it fails another, if improvement doesn't translate into victories, the questions might stop -- but Ferentz won't like the answers.