Has Iowa Righted Its Ship?

The Iowa football team site at 7-4 on the season with a chance to make this campaign head turner if it can win its final game at Nebraska.  8-4 is a world better than 7-5 and both outcomes are probably better than what the majority of the fanbase expected out of this season.

While it’s too early to definitely say ‘the ship has been righted’, there is a major sign indicating that is taking place this season, which is why a seven or eight win regular season, though not the type of year that would generally bring high praise, is noteworthy this season. What is it?

The Defensive Line: In my opinion, this unit has been the calling card of the Ferentz Era of Iowa football. Some will point towards the offensive line and it’s 1a, but for me the defensive line and its ability to control the line of scrimmage so consistently and make the opponent play one handed has given Iowa a chance to win games because it sure hasn’t been because the offense has been a juggernaut.

Iowa is 20th in the nation against the run in a league that still likes to run the football. Thus far Iowa’s schedule has included teams ranked 4th, 6th, 8th, 27th, 45th and 62nd in running the football. This Hawkeye defense is not an elite run stopping unit, but they are becoming disruptive on the interior, which has been a hallmark for Iowa’s best defenses under Kirk Ferentz. Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat are getting interior penetration which will gum up the works in the running game.

That bodes well for the Nebraska game but more importantly for the program going forward. It took Iowa a few years to dig out of the transfer malaise on the defensive line which one of the big reasons Iowa struggled last year…that and an all time bad offense in 2012. But the defensive line has been rebuilt and will return nearly everyone from this year’s group, next year, save the oft injured Dom Alvis. That’s big medicine for the program and Reese Morgan deserves a great deal of credit.

When Iowa has been good under Kirk Ferentz, it’s been because it’s had a great defensive line. There have been only two or three Ferentz era teams where the offense was capable of going out there and winning the game if the defense had a bad day; 2001 (33.8/ppg), 2002 and 2005.

Iowa’s last ‘explosive’ offense would have been the 2005 group (and a case could be made for 2010). That offense averaged 426.3 yards per game and 5.9 yards per play but still just 28.6 points per game. The 2001 offense averaged 5.8 yards per play and the 2002 offense averaged a Ferentz-era best of 6.4 yards per play. 2008? Iowa averaged just 363 yards per game, but 5.7 per play. 2009? Not hardly, as that group averaged 336.9 yards per game and just 5.2 yards per play. 2010? That group averaged 380.5 yards per game but an impressive 6.1 yards per play.

This year’s offense is nothing special, ranking 72nd in the nation. Iowa is averaging 398.7 yards per game this year but they are also averaging 72.6 plays per game, well up from their 67.5 one year ago. Iowa’s pace started out fast in plays per game, but they rank in the 70’s nationally in that category, too. Iowa is averaging 5.4 yards per play, a full yard per play better than last year’s 4.4 yards per play. Iowa also averaged 4.4 yards per play in 2004, a year where it went 7-1 in a much better Big Ten, but it had a defensive line and a horseshoe up its keister that season…and oh what a glorious season that was.

The 2013 offense is putting up better raw yardage numbers than any Iowa offense since 2005 and very average yards per play numbers, but it’s still very challenged where it matters a great deal and that is on the scored board.

Iowa is 76th in the nation at 26.2 points per game, bur recall that defense and special teams combined to scored 28 points against Western Michigan and that game’s 59 points account for 20.3% of Iowa’s scoring for the season. Take away that game and Iowa is averaging just 23.1 points per game and the Hawkeyes are averaging just 21.3 points per game in Big Ten play. I don’t know what it is about offense and Kirk Ferentz, but he’s allergic to too much of it, or so it would seem by judging him by his 15 year body of evidence. But that’s a story for a different story.

It’s that Iowa defensive line that has been the thing, the harbinger really, of a good season to come. There were still a lot of questions surrounding this year’s defensive line at the beginning of the year and few folks expected Iowa to be able to do what it has done there. Scott Dochterman of The Gazette is the only media member I recall picking Iowa to finish better than 6-6 (he went with 7-5, including a win over Michigan). I went 6-6 as did most media members, with some of them going 5-7 (Pat Harty comes to mind, with a 2-6 B1G record). I don’t fault Pat as I was very close to going 5-7, too.

That’s because last season’s offensive atrocity nearly shook my confidence in Ferentz. While the 2012 defense wasn’t vintage Ferentz (far from it), the offense was an affront to the sport, lacking any sort of downfield attack. The Greg Davis-Kirk Ferentz marriage was on the rocks from the get go and I am still not entirely sold on the notion that Davis is the guy, given they type of athlete Iowa recruits and the skill set they bring to the field.

It still seems to me, at times, that Davis is calling plays for ghosts of Texas past; Iowa doesn’t have the speed on the outside for the lateral game. It’s also OK to attack the middle of the field, so mix in a few more (as in more than zero) crossers on third downs as well as posts like the one Tevaun Smith caught and housed last week against Michigan. Call the outside zone when Canzeri is in the game and if you want to go outside with Weisman, call the toss sweep.

Don’t, for instance, call the outside zone with Weisman or a wide receiver screen when Matt Vandeberg is in the game. Bad ideas, those. Things still need to get sorted out on offense and I guess Davis has been at Iowa for just two years, but it’s not like he’s still getting to know his players or struggling to remember where he parked; he’s a football coach.

Thank goodness for the Iowa defense…again. We’ve said that so much through the years and are now able to do so again although this defense is different. They take more chances as Phil Parker is more aggressive than Norm Parker and Kirk Ferentz is allowing him to be. Part of the reason for that is because Iowa hasn’t developed a consistent pass rush with just the front four and another part of it is because Anthony Hitchens and James Morris are really good blitzers.

The defensive line should be better next year, perhaps quite a bit better. The Bullies of the Big Ten might be back in 2014.

So as long as Iowa represents itself well tomorrow in Lincoln, I think one can say this season has been a success for the program, even though nobody is going to hang a banner for 8-4 or 7-5. Given where this program wants to get back to, it had to learn to walk again before it could run. Mission accomplished.

  • jeffbuck

    I agree about the offensive play-calling. There is an odd reluctance to repeat exciting things that work, such as throwing the ball to Powell (has he vanished from the face of the earth?), and a dogged refusal to abandon things that do not (outside zone to Weisman). My pet peeve is what we do on first down deep in opponent’s territory – I mean, like from the 12 down to the 8, say: Dive play dive play dive play. This could actually work, of course, if you didn’t do it 10 times out of 10. As it is, it almost never works. What I’m saying, and I think I’m echoing you, Jon, is that however bad our offense may be — 5 on a scale of 10 for Big 10 offenses — the play-calling makes it worse for no good reason I can discern. On the positive side, we are better than last year and there really have been times this year — second half vs. Michigan las week — when, who’d a thunk it? — it starts to click. AND i still love Rudock,

    • westsidebill

      The play-calling is hot and cold, like it was much of the time under KOK. The common denominator is a head coach that is so deathly afraid of mistakes on offense that he sacrifices the opportunity to develop even a consistent offense, much less an above-average offense. That’s why it requires an utterly dominant defense for Iowa to have a great season. When you choose to accept mediocrity on one side of the ball, as KF has implored since he got here, you have little room for margin and require outstanding play on the other side of the ball. When you rank so low on a national scale – and within the conference – year after year after year then the playcalling is what it is = exactly the type of calls the HC wants.

      • jeffbuck

        Agreed. It seems to be a deathly terror of mistakes. The way KF and KOK handcuffed Stanzi his senior year springs to mind. They had him afraid of his own shadow.

        • westsidebill

          We are 100% on the same page. Think about having TWO years of Brad Banks instead of one…if that’s not bad enough think about how handcuffed Tate was in 2005 (2006 he was never 100% healthy but still handcuffed).

          The Stanzi example is perfect: remember how petrified he was during the 2-minute drill at the end of Wisky in 2010? My gosh, he looked like a HS freshman, staring at the sidelines for 10-15 seconds every single play as if he’d never seen the playbook.

          I’m not one for throwing it 70 times a game or need to run so much up-tempo that you can’t take more than a sip of beer each possession or run all exotic stuff that causes 4-6 turnovers each game, but most of the time we only run the simplest, most basic stuff that keep us on the bottom half (minimum) of the NCAA. It puts unrealistic pressure on the defense and special teams to not make any mistakes. That’s been a fairly poor way to good seasons most of the last 9 seasons.

          • jeffbuck

            Tate’s sophomore year was his best. It took KF and KOK a while to figure out how to suppress his imagination.

          • Ryan

            This is dead on.

          • Ryan

            I have always said even in the real good years that Iowa plays not to lose and he has the kids scared to make a mistake instead of the mindset of making plays. I know, I know Iowa has a small margin of error every year and turnover are a big deal. But one thing I would like to point out is that if you look at the nation’s leaders in turnover margin the top ten, save a couple teams, are absolutely horrible. Iowa had a great turnover margin last year, yet look at what the product was. Look at Nebby over the last few years for example.

            It’s time to start putting trust in these kids and for gods sake if we are on their 37 yard line and its fourth and one trust the kids. We have the d to back the call up if it doesn’t work.

          • BillyBilly

            You realize Iowa went for it on 4th and 4 at the Michigan 36 – right?

          • westsidebill

            Right.

            You realize that Iowa has punted on their opponents’s side of the field more than any team in FBS the last 10 years, right?

          • BillyBilly

            We’re talking the last 10 years now? Weird, I thought the complaint was that Kirk never changes and doesn’t “trust the kids”. Now he’s doing exactly what Ryan asked for, within 5 days of Ryan’s post, and you’re still bitching.

            Some people would complain about being hung with a new rope.

            The rest of us are pretty pleased about flipping 4-8 to 8-4 and ending the season with a rout of Nebraska, our first victory there since 1943.

  • No Offense

    Why can’t someone — Brian, Barta, Rudock — get it through Kirk’s thick head that being so conservative and predictable on offense is the RISKIEST approach he could take? This is the single most maddening thing about Ferentz for most fans. Be aggressive, open up the offense, scratch where it itches, and that would go a LONG way in both fan support and moving Iowa back into the elite of the Big Ten and the nation. And it could be done with the athletes Iowa has right now.

    Jeffbuck, you’re right. Damond Powell has become invisible. And Jon, you’re right–Iowa refuses to throw the ball over the middle. That’s crazy.

    In the red zone, Iowa should mix quick hitters to Weisman with stretches to Canzeri and, the best play ever inside the 10, the rollout option pass or run. It’s the play all LBs and DBs hate, because you can’t cover both at the same time. But Iowa almost never uses it. As a result, the Hawkeyes have a heckuva time putting up TDs.

    It’s so maddening to know what the Iowa offense COULD be and what it is. I like Rudock, BUT I also like Beathard, and I don’t think it’s smart football to leave Beathard on the bench all season long when you could be spotted for a series here and there to run the read option and throw the long ball that is a weakness for Rudock. And it would be awesome to sneak Beathard into the game Friday to throw a halfback pass.

    We need to use the throwback to the QB. We need to use counters to use Nebraska’s defensive speed against it. We need to use 3-step drops and quick slants to get the ball out and frustrate Nebraska’s blitzes. This is football, not rocket science, so the Ferentz failure, year after year, to use all the weapons at his disposal is a fundamental flaw.

    And yes, there is a universe between 7-5 and 8-4 this season. Beat Nebraska tomorrow, and the Hawkeyes are back. Lose — AGAIN — and the season will have been wasted. Period.

    • louie

      We have been seeing this for 14 years.nothing has changed on the offensive side of the ball.Every year Ferentz has been here his coaching on that side of the ball has cost us 1-3 games a year.2 of those years we should of been undefeated.We were good to great because of Ferentz ,but he is also the reason we will never go to the next level.You just have to deal with it till he leaves because he will never change.

  • Larry Flint

    What is maddening to me is seeing Jon’s ignorance in how he critique’s the offense. He blames the play-calling when it comes to outside zones and the like, however he doesn’t account for the fact that a good many of those outside zone run calls to Weisman were the result of Rudock seeing something at the line of scrimmage (maybe as simple as counting hats and seeing an advantage on the edge) and checking the plasy at the line of scrimmage.

    Iowa’s O is averaging nearly 400 yards per game with a first year starter (with no prior experience), the O still has new coaches on the offensive side of the ball, and it’s still just the second year of Davis at Iowa.

    • westsidebill

      Larry:

      Who do you think it is that coaches Rudock to make those calls? That’s just THIS year; there’s a full track record of petrified offensive play and production the last 15 years. You want team stats, fine; compare those stats to OTHER teams in the NCAA FBS level and then come back and say how “improved” Iowa is and how unfair critics are about this issues. You lose every time!

  • Rowdy Burns

    I have to say I am not as optimistic about the defense for next season because all 3 starting linebackers will be gone and they were good ones. True the defensive line could be strong next year, but if history has shown me anything it’s the line backers that have made the D tick during the Ferentz era. For example in 2010 Iowa had a good D line with Clayborn, Binns, Ballard, and Klug. However they weren’t as nearly effective as they were in 2009 when they Edds and Angerer were at linebacker. If you don’t have good linebackers with Iowa’s type of D the Defense will stink. Just look at the Bears without Urlacher and Briggs.

    • HNStaff

      Rowdy, in 2005 I point blank asked Kirk what he preferred if he could, to return all four DL or his all Americans at linebacker in hodge and greenway. He said since he had the LB’s that year he should probly say that. Which meant he’d prefer the DL as would any coach
      Jon Miller

  • GP

    GPYou haven’t had to watch every snap of the season ( like I have) to know that the basic predictable tendencies that Iowa’s O has. It’s frustrating because I think Iowa has the personnel to have a more then predictable offense that can score more. Increasing the tempo has helped but I’m totally with Jon in that if they would quit running the type of plays they will have no success with they could be even more efficient. I feel Canzeri brings quickness, speed and maybe most importantly vision to the rb position the other two just aren’t as good at. I think he should be getting 15 plus touches minimum a game. Bullock as versatile as he is doesn’t have the speed Canzeri does and he certainly has missed cut back lanes as he often tries to bounce everything outside. We all know what Weismans strengths and weaknesses are. Slow developing running plays to the outside sure isn’t a strength. And giving him 20 plus touches wears him down too. I think him getting 10 touches a game in short yardage situations would be maxamizing his strengths. With the 3 TE formations I wish they would use one of them up the seem to test the safetys. We don’t pressure the safeties of the other teams much with anything over the middle and that’s eliminating over 1/3rd of the field the other team has to prepare to defend going into a game. Not to mention for whatever reason Powell has played less as the season has gone on instead of more. I would think the fastest playmaker should be on the field more. It’s easier to defend him when he only plays ten snaps a game and only a target on 2 of em or so tops….

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