AMES - The answers never really came and plenty of doubt remained after Iowa's tidy-turned-tenuous 27-21 victory over Iowa State here Saturday night.
If fans of either program were looking for calming reassurances or even signs of true hope, Jack Trice Stadium wasn't exactly the place to be.
Lost in a sea of mediocrity was another relatively productive performance by the Hawkeyes in the trenches. In case Black and Gold backers missed it during a panic attack as their team was nearly coughing up a 20-point lead down the stretch, Iowa did top the 200-yard rushing mark in the third consecutive game to start a season for the first time in 11 years.
Granted it took the Hawks 60 carries to get there, but let's not split hairs at this point. Baby steps to optimism.
Iowa has looked the part of a smashmouth football squad in starting 2-1 overall, with 161 run plays compared to just 88 Jake Rudock pass attempts thus far. Granted Northern Illinois, Missouri State and Iowa State aren't exactly in the same physical galaxy as future opponents like Ohio State or Wisconsin, but there at least seems to be a theme and an identity developing: expect heavy doses of Mark Weisman (85 - count 'em, 85 - carries for 425 yards) and Damon Bullock (40 for 166) in the weeks to come.
Rudock is still settling in at quarterback, and Marvin McNutt isn't walking into the Hawkeye locker room anytime soon. Iowa may become a more balanced offensive unit as time passes, but for now, this is what works. Whether or not head coach Kirk Ferentz's squad has the sustainability to remain productive during the rigors of the Big Ten campaign remains to be seen. If Iowa has a hallmark, though, it certainly seems to be up front.
As expected, the Cyclones are now in a much more precarious position as the loser of Saturday's affair. They're 0-2 for the first time since 2007, and the nation's eighth toughest overall schedule - according to the RPI - lies ahead.
Quarterback Sam Richardson is banged up. The offensive line is banged up. The defense is still stuck in the aftermath of losing all-everything linebackers Jake Knott and A.J. Klein to graduation, and the adjustment period may be longer than ISU supporters initially cared to admit.
Remember when Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge were the heart and soul of the Iowa defense? The Hawkeyes went 27-10 in their final three seasons with the team, then struggled through a two-year, 12-13 period following their departure. The absence of Greenway and Hodge wasn't the sole reason for the program's step backward in 2006 and '07, but Ferentz had a much more difficult time replacing them than fans adopting a ''next man in'' approach anticipated.
The Cyclone defense is facing a similar transition right now. It's one thing to talk about how much ISU would miss the talent, leadership and effort of Knott and Klein. Actually dealing with their absence is a whole new ballgame. As it stands today, their defense is a boat without a rudder.
So this is where we stand. Pockets of positive energy, but overall, a rather unnerving performance by both sides. Iowa inched a step closer to bowling in December - for no reason than earning another win. The Cyclones, meanwhile, rolled a second straight home gutter ball against an in-state rival.
Was this a turning point for the Hawks, or lipstick on a pig? When, where - and more importantly, how - does Iowa State recover? The questions remain, and thus, so does the uncertainty.
Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached afternoons and evenings at 1-800-622-6613, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org