Big Ten

Big Ten preview: Can Hawkeyes escape rut of mediocrity?

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Big Ten preview: Can Hawkeyes escape rut of mediocrity?

That Orange Bowl win seems oh so long ago.

To this point, the height of the 16-year Kirk Ferentz Era in Iowa City has been winning the Orange Bowl to cap the 2009 season, but the seasons since have provided little in the way of excitement. The Hawkeyes have been dreadfully mediocre since that berth in the then-BCS bowl, failing to win more than eight games in a season and losing to SEC teams in the bowl games they have reached in each of the last two years.

Moments like last year’s freeze-the-kicker fail in a loss to Iowa State or the drubbing at the hands of Minnesota have seemingly sapped all the faith in Ferentz out of the Iowa fanbase. This offseason, pollsters actually conducted polls to measure the head football coach’s favorability in the Hawkeye State, and the numbers weren't good. Only 46 percent of polled Hawkeyes fans approved of the job Ferentz is doing with their beloved football program.

An expensive contract that runs through 2020 and that would demand a buyout north of $13 million has given the impression that Ferentz is never going anywhere — but more importantly that he has little motivation to crank things up and churn out some winners. Surely, Ferentz is focused on on-field success as much as any coach in the country, but there’s an easy way for Ferentz to turn public opinion back in his favor: Win.

[MORE BIG TEN: Big Ten preview: Can Penn State compete with big boys in Big Ten East?]

“I just wanted to restate that we're totally committed to being a Big Ten Championship-caliber football team,” Ferentz told reporters earlier this month during the team’s media day. “That's been our goal since 1999 when we got started, and things haven't changed on that front. I believe we have a strong foundation in place right now.

“Regarding our fans, they've long been the best I've ever been around, I can say that. Getting here in 1981, I've said it many times, how memorable it was for me to walk into Kinnick after 19 straight losing seasons and being just a great, great environment. In my 25-year association with this program, our fans have been just absolutely fantastic. They deserve a good football team. That's always been the goal. I'm fully aware of that. I understand that, our staff understands and our players do, too. We're working hard to provide them what they deserve from our perspective.”

Ferentz’s goals are admirable, but not many think the Hawkeyes are going to be contending for a Big Ten championship in 2015. Their fortunes in that pass-fail category will likely be the same as the other 11 Big Ten teams that aren’t Ohio State or Michigan State, as those two seem to be the conference’s indomitable powerhouses. But that doesn’t mean the Hawkeyes can’t dramatically improve.

[MORE BIG TEN: Big Ten preview: Can Akeel Lynch turn around Penn State's last-place run game?]

In 2014, Iowa lost games to Iowa State, Maryland, Wisconsin and Nebraska by a total of 15 points. Losses in those last two regular-season contests against Wisconsin and Nebraska were particularly painful because of how they happened — just two points separated the Hawkeyes and Badgers, just three separated the Hawkeyes and Huskers — and because they came to division opponents. A play here and a play there and Iowa is threatening for a spot in the Big Ten title game.

Even if just two of those games go different ways — and you can argue that even a mediocre Iowa team had no business losing to Iowa State and Maryland, games they’ll have the opportunity to turn around in 2015 — we’re talking nine wins instead of seven.

It might be painting things a little rosier than they actually went down, but the truth is that Iowa is ready to hit the reset button. Ferentz announced some general program changes back in January, as well as a prominent change at quarterback. We’ll see if the 17th season of the Ferentz Era stands out from many of the others. But before you answer another phone call from a pollster asking you to weigh in on Ferentz’s job performance, know that Ferentz is most definitely trying to turn his team’s fortunes around.

“That's the great thing about sports, you get a chance to get back up on your feet and do something about your last experience or things that you weren't happy about,” Ferentz said. “So no, we didn't have to call Dr. Phil in or anything like that for our football team. We're just trying to work a little bit harder, work smarter and get better at the things that really determine successful outcomes. I think the key thing is identifying where we've got to get better and working hard at it.  Out of a lot of positive things with our team over the course of the last eight months. Probably the most encouraging thing is just the attitude. They've been really willing.”

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

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USA TODAY

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

Tough news out of Evanston this morning: Northwestern announced that running back Jeremy Larkin will retire immediately after being diagnosed with cervical stenosis.

Cervical stenois is the narrowing of the spinal canal in one's neck, according to Mayo Clinic. Larkin's condition is thankfully not life-threatening, though it does prevent him from continuing to participate in the game of football. 

"Football has been a lifelong passion and it has been a process to reconcile the fact I won't be on that field again, given I've played this game since I was five years old," Larkin said.

"I'm extremely appreciative of the Northwestern sports medicine and athletic training staffs for uncovering this condition, and for my coaches and the medical staff for always putting my health first.

"I came to this University to engage at the absolute highest level on the field and in the classroom, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to continue one of those while supporting my teammates from the sideline." 

Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald called the news "heartbreaking."

"This is heartbreaking because I see every day how much Jeremy loves the game, loves his teammates, and loves to compete," Fitzgerald said in a statement. "But this is the absolute best possible outcome for him.

"The discovery of this condition allowed Jeremy and his family to make an informed decision for his long-term health and well-being. For those of us who have known Jeremy Larkin since his high school days, his future is exceptionally bright. I can't wait to see the impact he makes in our world."

Larkin is a sophomore from Cincinnati. He finishes his Northwestern career with 156 carries for 849 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns.

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

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USA TODAY

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

Former University of Illinois tennis star Kevin Anderson completed a marathon upset against an all-time great on the highest stage of professional tennis.

Anderson came back from two sets down to beat Roger Federer in Wimbledon’s quarterfinals 2-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 13-11 on Wednesday morning. He will play in the semifinals of the tournament for the first time in his career.

As a native of South Africa, Anderson played three seasons with the Fighting Illini and won the NCAA doubles championship during the 2005-06 season as a sophomore. The 32-year-old was a three-time All-American in singles at Illinois.

Now, as the eighth ranked singles player on the ATP World Tour, Anderson is a force to be reckoned with at the professional level. He made it all the way to the US Open final in 2017.

The former Illini star will look to keep his recent success going when he represents Illinois in the semifinals of Wimbledon this Friday.