Five things to reflect on following the Iowa football team's 14-10 loss to Northwestern on Saturday:
1. The good
This won't take long.
The work of Ihmir Smith-Marsette in both kick returns and as a receiver gave Iowa a chance in an otherwise forgettable performance against the Wildcats.
The sophomore's return ability has been a constant this season. Smith-Marsette collected 100 return yards on three kick returns Saturday and now averages 31.9 yards on the 15 kicks he has returned this season.
His year-to-year improvement as a receiver is noteworthy. He had a career-high 90 receiving yards on four catches including a 28-yard touchdown reception on one of the two plays Iowa had against Northwestern that went for at least 20 yards.
Elsewhere, Iowa's defense continued to turn teams over. Geno Stone and Jake Gervase recorded interceptions to give the Hawkeyes 12 in their last six games.
2. The bad
Iowa's inability to get anything going on the ground turned the Hawkeyes into a one-dimensional offense that played right into the Wildcats' hands despite a Northwestern secondary that played without two injured starters and had a third limp off during the game.
Linebackers Paddy Fisher, Blake Gallagher and safety Travis Whillock teamed up to pinch off the middle of the Hawkeye run game, keeping the ball in front of them from start to finish and denying Iowa backs any opportunity to stretch for an extra couple of yards after contact.
Overall, the Hawkeyes were limited to 64 yards on 22 carries, an average of 2.9 yards per rush that won't win many games.
The Wildcats sacked Nate Stanley just once, but exerted enough persistent pressure to create issues for an Iowa offense which converted on just 3-of-13 third-down plays and came up short on its only attempt to move the chains on fourth down.
3. The surprisingly bad
One constant for Iowa this season -- at least until Saturday -- has been the Hawkeyes' ability to stop the run.
Moving the football on the ground against Iowa's defense and its eight-player rotation in the front four has been a challenge for nearly every opponent Iowa has faced this season.
Only Wisconsin, helped by the legs of Big Ten rushing leader Jonathan Taylor, accumulated more yards on the ground against the Hawkeyes than the 184 Northwestern rushed for yesterday at Kinnick Stadium.
Everybody who settled into a seat at Kinnick Stadium for the Big Ten opener knew that the Badgers were going to put the ball in Taylor's hands and try to run it against Iowa.
They did it well, piling up 210 yards on 44 carries against the Hawkeyes.
The Wildcats did their work with 46 carries, becoming just the second team to reach 4 yards per carry against the Iowa defense this season.
Freshman Isaiah Bowser rushed for 165 yards, including 119 in the second half to help Northwestern find a little consistency on offense in a black-and-blue defensive Big Ten struggle.
Against a defense aligned to keep the Big Ten's second-leading receiver, Flynn Nagel, in check, Bowser and the Wildcats found room to run.
"The kid ran the ball really hard,'' Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "They stretch it out a little bit, so you've got to make some choices on how you want to fill those gaps. When we did leave one open, they hit it pretty well.''
There was no disputing that.
4. The ugly
In each of its four losses, Iowa has been its own biggest opponent at the most critical moments and that proved to be the case again Saturday.
This time, fumbles were the issue.
The Hawkeyes have lost only six fumbles this season through 10 games, but none have been more costly than the two fourth-quarter fumbles that denied any hopes Iowa had of crafting a late-game comeback.
The drops by Mekhi Sargent and Ivory Kelly-Martin in the final 4 minutes, 26 seconds Saturday -- the first fumbles by Iowa running backs in 490 carries -- cost the Hawkeyes a chance to win a winnable game.
Much like the punt-return problems against Wisconsin, the late-game interception at Penn State and pass defense issues the led to a loss in the final seconds at Purdue, costly mistakes at critical moments provide another vivid example of how fine of a line exists between winning and losing in college football.
"In this league, there's a lot of close games and a lot of games that are going to come down to the end. If you can't make the plays that count in those tight games, you're not going to win,'' Iowa receiver Nick Easley accurately deducted.
Sophomore running backs like Sargent, Kelly-Martin and Toren Young will learn from their mistakes. Ask Akrum Wadley. But Saturday's drops by Sargent and Kelly-Martin came with a costly price and only added to the frustration of a team which takes a three-game losing streak into its 2:30 p.m. game Saturday at Illinois.
5. The bizarre
I covered my first Iowa football game in 1981 and I'd have a hard time coming up with more than a handful of situations that have been as bizarre as the way Noah Fant is being utilized this season by the Hawkeyes.
I get that Iowa's cupboard at the position is full. T.J. Hockenson is in the midst of a terrific sophomore year and Nate Wieting continues to show growth.
I get that juggling multiple players at one position can be a challenge. If you're lined up in a personnel group that calls for one tight end, only one will play and Hockenson's performance in 2018 has made him the go-to guy in a number of situations.
However, there were times went Fant seemed like a forgotten man in the second half of Saturday's 14-10 loss.
He was on the field for fewer than 10 snaps in the final two quarters and was on the sidelines when Iowa was grasping for ways to move the ball.
The Hawkeyes could have used his skill while converting on just one of the five third-down plays it ran in the second half or on the one occasion it did move the ball into the red zone.
He does have 35 receptions through 10 games -- five more than he caught over 13 games a year ago -- but the use of his blend of size and speed has at times been underwhelming.