Struggling Hawkeyes have lost 3 straight; host Boilermakers, who are winless in Big Ten

Iowa has 25 former players in the NFL, an impressive total that ranks ninth-best in the nation.

But it's tough to see many current Hawkeyes reaching the next level — and that might be the biggest reason this year's team is in such a free fall.

Iowa (4-5, 2-3 Big Ten) has lost three straight, including a 24-21 loss last week at once-woeful Indiana. The Hawkeyes head into Saturday's home game with Purdue (3-6, 0-5) needing to win two of their last three games simply to gain bowl eligibility.

Though Iowa has typically been less flashy than most programs under longtime coach Kirk Ferentz, it still needs guys to make big plays.

That hasn't happened enough in what's threatening to become a lost season.

"It's personnel and execution, typically. It's probably about as simple as that," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.

Iowa hasn't had enough of either all season.

The Hawkeyes are averaging just 3.9 yards a run and 5.9 yards per pass. They've protected the ball well, but the explosive plays that often swing games has been absent for Iowa's arsenal.

In nine games, the Hawkeyes have had just one play from scrimmage go for more than 50 yards — and that one, a pass from senior quarterback James Vandenberg to Kevonte Martin-Manley, went for 51.

Iowa has gained 20 or more yards on runs or passes just 30 times, and only twice have such plays gone for touchdowns. The Hawkeyes have somehow turned just four of its 174 completions into scores.

On Tuesday, Ferentz again defended first-year offensive coordinator Greg Davis, who has come under scrutiny from Iowa fans for a weak passing game.

"I think Greg is a tremendous coach, a tremendous person. Really an outstanding coach," Ferentz said. "Everything starts with what can your players do. And that's where it really starts no matter where you are, what you're doing."

Iowa's defense has been its strength this season, relatively speaking. But the Hawkeyes don't have many playmakers on that side of the ball, either.

Iowa counts a sizeable number of defensive linemen among its NFL alumni, but this year's squad is 95th nationally in tackles for loss and 110th in sacks with just 10.

The Hawkeyes have been average at best in another area built for big plays — third-down conversion stops — by allowing nearly 41 percent on those to be picked up by opponents.

Iowa has been opportunistic in the turnover department, with nearly one more per game than their opponents. But its offense has been so bad that it's hardly mattered how many times the Hawkeyes have the ball.

Players like wide receiver Keenan Davis, tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz and Vandenberg simply haven't grown from solid Big Ten starters to future draft prospects quite like many thought.

"One thing affects another. We've got to get into a little better sync. We've got to execute better in critical situations," Ferentz said. "That's a team thing."

About the only offensive player on Iowa's roster to have a breakout season has been sophomore Mark Weisman. But he's been either ineffective or on the sideline the past three weeks because of an ankle sprain and a leg strain.

Ferentz said Tuesday that Weisman is doubtful to play again this week.

However, the Hawkeyes have a number of younger players who appear poised to blossom into impact players in 2013 and beyond.

Sophomore running back Damon Bullock has been explosive and versatile, and he and the bruising Weisman will be an intriguing backfield duo next season. Iowa also has a host of promising underclassmen on both lines and in the secondary. Ferentz recently sang the praises of redshirt freshman quarterback Jake Rudock, the favorite to replace Vandenberg.

But for now, the Hawkeyes will simply have to hope they can make enough plays — big or small — to survive the season's final three weeks and earn a bowl bid.

"Talented or not, there's a lot of plays we haven't made to win some of these games," Vandenberg said.