Big Ten

Big Ten preview: Can Hawkeyes turn in worthy encore performance?

Big Ten preview: Can Hawkeyes turn in worthy encore performance?

Iowa fans want an encore, but have the Hawkeyes already played their greatest hits?

2015 was a season unlike any other for Iowa, the winningest campaign in program history that featured a perfect 12-0 regular season and a Big Ten West Division championship.

The success of the season was mildly dampened by constant outcries of a soft schedule permitting such a spectacular regular-season finish, and more so by back-to-back losses when the Hawkeyes played on the biggest stages: first to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game, then to Stanford in the Rose Bowl.

But considering the only other team to finish its regular season without a loss played for a national championship, those bemoaning the strength of schedule might be better off looking for something else to complain about.

“It’s tough to do. Looking back on the season, it is, it’s tough to do,” Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard said last week during Big Ten Media Days. “Not a lot of teams did it last year. I think it was us and Clemson that had an undefeated regular season. There’s a reason that we were the only two teams that did it. I don’t care what your schedule was, it’s tough to do any way you slice it.”

As for those postseason losses, those were probably a bit more worrisome — that is if the Hawkeyes hope to be in a similar position in 2016. With another favorable road to a West Division title (Iowa’s four toughest games against Michigan, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Nebraska will all be played in Iowa City), this team has some very reasonable championship expectations.

“More than anything, we learned what it takes to get there, to play in a game like (the Big Ten title game) and play that close. But now we’ve got to know what it takes to win that game,” Beathard said. “To get to the Rose Bowl is a great achievement, but it’ll take a lot more to win one. We didn’t play very well, we didn’t show up ready to go that game. We know now, we’ve tasted it.

“We’ve tasted a 12-0 regular season, and we’ve tasted what it’s like to play in a Big Ten championship and then in a Rose Bowl. And we know what it’s going to take to win those games, hopefully.”

Of course, going 12-0 twice in a row is a heck of a lot easier said than done. But Iowa has the experience of doing it once, and with a very similar schedule ahead of it — and with Beathard back alongside one of the nation’s top defensive backs in Desmond King — there’s no reason to think that another trip to Indy would be impossible.

The difference? Handling the expectations. Beathard said he doesn’t care about outside expectations, but history says the Hawkeyes might have quite a challenge ahead of them. Kirk Ferentz’s teams haven’t done the best job following up successful seasons. After the last double-digit-win season in 2009, which featured an Orange Bowl win, Iowa went just 8-5 in 2010. After winning a combined 31 games in 2002, 2003 and 2004, Iowa won seven, six and six games over the next three seasons, respectively.

Maintaining success hasn’t been Ferentz’s strong suit. Will that change in 2016?

“I think if you look back, there are years where we've handled that well. Like '09 and maybe 2003 and 2004. And then in those two seasons (2005 and 2010), that really gets down to just winning close games, doing little things right, those types of things. And I think it's that way in college football in general,” Ferentz said. “Certainly it's been that way at the University of Iowa for a long time. Little things do matter. They are big things. And our ability to handle little details and do little things well on a consistent basis typically is a measure of our success.

“And last year is a really good illustration of that. I think if you look at it all but one game, there weren't many games where we were in the last four minutes where anybody on our sideline felt very comfortable. All those games went down to the wire. They're extremely competitive, and that's just I think the nature of college football. It certainly is for us at Iowa. And for us to be successful we've got to be able to come out on the right side of those things and again it usually gets down to little detail things.”

Iowa is the preseason favorite of many to win the division and return to Indy, where unfinished business would be the talking point of the weekend. But of course there are plenty of opportunities to trip up along the way. The Hawkeyes won’t be the only contenders in what could still be a wide-open West: Northwestern, Nebraska and Wisconsin will have their says.

But thanks to that schedule and the experience of being there before, it’d be hard to unseat the Hawkeyes just yet. So the mission is to do it all over again.

“I notice the difference. I’ve talked about it before. It’s not about becoming the hunter where we’re sneaking up on people. Now, we’re the team that’s being hunted,” King said. “People want to play us, people want to beat us. The four trophy games we have — Iowa State, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nebraska — they have empty trophy cases over there, and they want to get those back. So there’ll be teams that are coming back for us.”

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.