Five things to think about following the Iowa football team's 17-10 overtime loss on Saturday at Northwestern:
1. The good
Iowa completed a deep ball Saturday, a legitimate get-that-pass-a-flight-plan deep ball.
The Hawkeyes have gained more yards on pass plays this season -- Akrum Wadley turned short throws in 70 and 68 yard gains -- but Saturday's 61-yard pass from Nate Stanley to Matt VandeBerg was a thing of beauty for a multitude of reasons.
First, it was simply a well-thrown ball. Stanley hit VandeBerg in stride for the big gain late in the first half of Saturday's loss to the Wildcats.
The play also represented some growth in Iowa's passing game. Stanley struggled with overthrows and timing issues on his deep balls throughout the first half of the season. Connecting on some of those passes is a step forward and something that should benefit the Hawkeyes in future games.
2. The headed in the right direction
A friendly south wind didn't hurt, but punters Ryan Gersonde and Colten Rastetter both made strides on what proved to be the Hawkeyes' best punting day of the year.
Gersonde punted the ball five times and averaged 52.6 yards on those punts while Rastetter stepped in during the second quarter and hit a 55-yard rugby-style punt in his only attempt.
The Wildcats did gain some return yardage - 34 on three run backs - but the Hawkeyes' punters did show improvement on the first game of the season where winds were a factor.
3. The bad
Miscommunication allowed Northwestern to pick apart the Hawkeyes' nickel defense on a couple of critical occasions Saturday.
Clayton Thorson's 21-yard run on a third-and-15 play during the Wildcats' first touchdown drive of the game and Thorson's 23-yard pass on a third-and-nine play to the 1-yard line in overtime both occurred following on-field communication breakdowns within the Hawkeye defense.
Iowa's most experienced defensive signal callers, linebacker Josey Jewell and free safety Brandon Snyder, missed Saturday's game because of injuries.
Thorson made a terrific play on his third-quarter run, but would Jewell have limited him? We'll never know.
Ben Niemann, shifting to middle linebacker in Jewell's absence, was shifted out of his spot by a teammate at the last second before Thorson hit Jackson with the pass which set up the Wildcats' game-winning score.
That left Jackson with room to run.
"The communication wasn't what it needed to be. We have to get that straightened out,'' Niemann said. "It put us in a tough spot.''
4. The ugly
Iowa looked like it had gained some traction in its rushing attack in the first quarter, gaining 53 yards on the ground.
After that, the Hawkeyes looked lost. Iowa gained just 36 yards on the ground over the final three quarters and an overtime possession against a middle-of-the-Big-Ten-pack Northwestern defense.
The Wildcats worked to force Akrum Wadley to cut inside, right into the teeth of a ready-and-waiting defense and that strategy worked.
Iowa finished with fewer than 100 rushing yards for the third time this season and the result has been the same in all three games -- a close loss.
"We're a better football team when we run the ball efficiently,'' coach Kirk Ferentz said. "It's always been that way. That is our plan and that will continue to be our plan, so we're going to try to do a better job there.''
Iowa averaged 2.7 yards per carry against the Wildcats, one less yard per rush than the Hawkeyes' season average and a number that won't get it done against pretty much every team remaining on the Iowa schedule.
5. The where do they go from here
Minnesota, in reality.
That would have been the Hawkeyes' focus this week regardless of what transpired Saturday at Ryan Field, but the reality of a 1-3 start in the Big Ten is that Iowa's chances of earning even a share of the West Division title likely ended with a second 17-10 loss in three games.
At 4-3, Iowa needs wins in two of its final five games to even be bowl eligible but even that needs to go on the backburner for now.
The Hawkeyes' focus needs to be on Minnesota and Saturday's 5:30 p.m. game at Kinnick Stadium, a winnable match-up if Iowa can move forward from a listless offensive performance at Northwestern.
The Golden Gophers have matched Iowa's conference start - both have beaten Illinois and lost to every other league team they've seen - and so the battle for Floyd of Rosedale becomes a pivotal match-up for both teams.
A narrow focus on concentrated improvement is probably the right course of action for the Hawkeyes at this point in time. Iowa needs to move forward but can only do so effectively one step at a time.