Iowa Football: 10 Things Ferentz Needs to Do to Turn the Hawkeyes Around
The 2012 Iowa Hawkeyes went 4-8. This will be the first Hawkeye team to stay home for the bowl season since 2007, and it will be the first group that failed to qualify for a bowl since 2000.
Regardless what the stats say, this was probably the worst Iowa defense since 2000, and it was the worst Kirk Ferentz-era offense.
Furthermore, 2012 was on the back of two subpar performances, both of which saw the Hawkeyes go 7-5.
The team was, in fairness, young, but it wasn't so young as to merit losing to Iowa State, Central Michigan, Indiana and Purdue, three of which were home games and all of which were against mediocre or worse squads.
Moving ahead, there are changes and adjustments Kirk Ferentz can make, and, in some cases, has to make if he expects his program to flourish in an increasingly competitive Big Ten.
That said, Ferentz is not going to change to a spread offense, and he's not going to open up the defense as though he's Nick Saban. The Iowa offensive scheme is not going to focus on a dual-threat quarterback, and the defense is not going to change to a 4-2-5 base.
In short, the changes suggested on the following slides only work within the realm of Kirk Ferentz's reality.
Adjust Recruiting Strategy Part 1
I went into this in more depth in a previous article, but one thing that can be said about Ferentz is that he's stubborn. He sticks to his philosophy and game plan no matter what is happening on the field or what type of personnel he has.
He is very much a my-way-or-the-highway type of coach, and that's fine.
The issue is that he has no plan B when he doesn't have the personnel he needs to run the schemes he wants to run.
In effect, the most sensible course for him to pursue in order to make sure he has the players to fit his schemes is to dig into the JUCO pool.
This is a recruiting strategy that the majority of programs in situations similar to Iowa—non-blue blood programs in relatively talent-poor states—regularly employ. Kansas State, Kansas, Nebraska and Minnesota all recruit JUCOs heavily.
Generally speaking, Ferentz is right. He wants to develop high school players to fit the system he wants to run. However, when necessary, he needs to augment that system.
Think of the difference one JUCO receiver that was ideal and already familiar with Greg Davis' system would have made in 2012. How about a JUCO defensive end on a young line that had the fewest sacks in the Big Ten and tied for 114th in the country?
**On Sunday night, per Hawkeyenation, Iowa signed JUCO wide receiver Damond Powell.**
Adjust Recruiting Strategy Part 2
Some Hawkeyes from the first half of the Ferentz era who hailed from Florida: Brad Banks, C.J. Jones, Abdul Hodge, Fred Barr, Mo Brown.
Some Hawkeyes from the first half of the Ferentz era who hailed from Texas: Jonathan Babineaux, Howard Hodges, Drew Tate, Scott Chandler, Clinton Solomon.
The last high-impact Texas or Florida Hawkeye was cornerback Charles Godfrey, who graduated in 2007.
Iowa has been recruiting the Sunshine and Lone Star states, but nowhere near as ambitiously or effectively as in the early part of Ferentz's run. At that time, Bret Bielema was the Hawkeyes' man in Florida while Carl Jackson and Ron Aiken were active in Texas.
Since those coaches retired or moved on, Florida and Texas have not been anywhere near as fruitful for the Hawkeyes.
In fact, over the last seven-eight years, Iowa has been busier in the Midwest, especially in the Ohio and St. Louis areas. It is fine to make a home in these convenient areas, but, as Grantland.com recently pointed out, football talent is in the South and continues to trend southward.
Most Big Ten teams are trying to exploit this. Wisconsin has 10 Floridians on its current roster, including multiple starters. Nebraska has 19 Texans. Purdue has 25 Floridians and six Texans. Minnesota has 10 Floridians and 13 Texans.
Florida and Texas have proved fertile recruiting grounds for Kirk Ferentz in the past. He has to reestablish those ties, especially with native-Texan Greg Davis now on the staff.
Clock Management and Two-Minute Offensive Blunders Need Fixing Now
2013 will be Kirk Ferentz's 15th year as the head coach of Iowa.
During that time he has worked with two separate offensive coordinators, both of who served as the quarterback coach. He has had three different wide receiver coaches, two running back coaches, three tight end coaches and three offensive line coaches. He has had seven different starting quarterbacks.
Regardless who has been in these roles, two issues have consistently plagued the Iowa offense: clock management and the two-minute offense.
Arguably the greatest single Hawkeye play over the last 14 years—Tate-to-Holloway—was a fortunate result of boggled clock management.
The changing faces that have worked within the Iowa offense support the reality that the problem, as it concerns clock management and the two-minute offense, is wholly Ferentz.
The two-minute offense and clock management are elemental parts of football, just like the goal-line defense or the kick-return team.
Ferentz must realize this is a chronic problem. If he doesn't, then he isn't qualified to coach high school football, let alone FBS college football.
Assuming he does realize it is an issue, in his 15th year in Iowa City, he has to commit to fixing it.
Decide What Iowa's Offensive Identity Is
I went over this in depth in a previous article, but the overarching issue with the 2012 offense was that it lacked an identity.
The season started with what seemed to be an offense that mostly resembled what Greg Davis wanted to do. Then it quickly veered towards the Kirk Ferentz/Ken O'Keefe model that Hawkeye fans have known for the past 14 years.
In the end, it was a Frankenstein-esque mish-mosh of two offenses that didn't complement each other.
The offense that Greg Davis ideally wants to run is up-tempo. He wants to extend the game, spread out the field, open up the run via the pass and have receivers run short, quick routes that allow them to catch the ball going full speed.
Meanwhile, Ferentz's ideal offense takes its time. It shortens the game, collapses the field, opens up the play-action pass via the run and has receivers make plays downfield using their physicality.
In the end, Ferentz's offense can be whatever he wants it to be. It can employ Davis' West Coast scheme, Ferentz's ground-and-pound scheme, it can be an air-raid team, a run-and-gun unit or a spread-option squad.
Either way, it has to decide what it wants to be and work towards that end.
As long as the Iowa offense is a conglomeration of different, uncomplementary strategies, it will lack an identity, and as long as that is the case, it will be an abject failure.
Tight End 2.0
Whatever offensive identity Ferentz decides upon—assuming he doesn't attempt to continue to force the ill-fitting mess that was the 2012 Iowa offense—he needs to focus on his tight ends.
In the past, Ferentz's program has done a quality job of building up tight ends and putting them to use in both the passing game and as blockers in the run game. Every Iowa starting tight end from 2001-2009 was drafted. Moreover, the 2010 starting tight end, Allen Reisner, signed a free-agent contract and is currently on the Minnesota Vikings' active roster.
The 2011 tight ends were lackluster, but the 2012 group was expected to bounce back in Greg Davis' offense. Unfortunately, it didn't happen.
Top tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz caught 45 passes, which was the most by a Hawkeye tight end since Scott Chandler had 46 receptions in 2006. However, a disproportionate amount of C.J. Fed's production was over the last two games, and he coupled his receptions with 9.62 yards per catch (YPC). This was the lowest Ferentz-era YPC for a top tight end. Also, the 6'7" junior only had one touchdown grab.
It is difficult to say what went wrong. Was the problem the tight ends, the play calling, the quarterbacking?
Who can say, but one thing is certain. Iowa needs to involve the tight end more actively into the passing game.
There are currently five scholarship tight ends on the roster: Fiedorowicz, true sophomore Ray Hamilton, redshirt freshmen Jake Duzey and Henry Krieger Coble and true freshman George Kittle.
Ferentz and Davis need to look at programs like Stanford and Penn State, which are involving multiple tight ends in their schemes and are using creative means to get the ball into their hands.
Three of PSU's top five pass-catchers in 2012 were tight ends, both of who were lightly recruited freshmen. Meanwhile, two of Stanford's top three pass-catchers were tight ends.
Both PSU and Stanford run pro sets, and both use their tight ends in ways that would fit seamlessly into what Iowa wants to do.
Stay out of the Quarterback's Ear
Two years ago, I noted the regressive trend that affected Iowa quarterbacks. It happened with Drew Tate, it happened with Jake Christensen (to be fair, Christensen was never good), it happened with Ricky Stanzi and now, it has happened with James Vandenberg.
In retrospect, perhaps "regression" isn't the appropriate word. Perhaps, constricted is a more precise nomenclature. It's almost as if through years in Iowa's system, the quarterback slowly but surely becomes scared to make a mistake. Needless to say, a quarterback, or any athlete, that is scared to make a mistake will not be successful.
Recently, SMA of Hawkeye blog Blackheartgoldpants took this one step further, noting that given Kirk Ferentz's conservatism, "One can almost hear Ferentz whisper in the quarterback's ear: 'You don't have to win it, just don't lose it.'"
The end result of this getting in the quarterback's ear is the aforementioned constricted play.
Ferentz is not doing his signal-callers any favors by staying on top of them. The best thing he can do is leave the quarterbacking to the quarterback coach and the quarterback himself.
Get Rid of the Pass-Prevent Defense
In 2002, the most accurate Big Ten passing offense—Ohio State—completed 61.8 percent of its 280 passing attempts. The Buckeyes were the only conference team to complete more than 60 percent of their passes.
In 2012, the most accurate Big Ten passing offense—Northwestern—completed 63.1 percent of its 333 passing attempts. Five conference teams completed more than 60 percent of their passes.
Moreover, 2012 Northwestern had the lowest completion percentage of a conference leader since 2008 Minnesota completed 62.2 percent of its passes.
Between 2008-2012, 13 Big Ten teams completed 63 percent or more of their passes, with three teams completing over 70 percent.
Between 2000-2004, only two Big Ten teams cracked the 63 percent completion mark—2001 Iowa and 2003 Indiana.
Put simply, efficient, accurate passing schemes are and have been on the rise, and that spells trouble for pass-prevent defenses.
These days, most offenses not named Iowa can consistently move from their own 20-yard line to their opponents' 20 in less than two minutes. Presenting the opponent with a soft, pass-prevent look only makes it easier.
It is no coincidence that the 2010 Iowa defense couldn't hold a lead in the fourth quarter. Once the Hawks grabbed a late lead, it kept throwing pass-prevent looks at its opponents. Six of the 11 2010 Big Ten passing offenses completed over 63 percent of their passes.
Not surprisingly, Iowa lost to three of those teams. In fact, four of Iowa's five 2010 losses came at the hands of teams that completed an average of 68.2 percent of their passes.
Today's offenses are made to tear prevent looks apart, and that's exactly what they do, especially when their opponents don't have the personnel to create a consistent pass rush.
Offenses have changed drastically since 2004. The numbers unequivocally bear that out. Kirk Ferentz has to adjust to those changes.
Adjust When Personnel Isn't There, Especially on Defense
Kirk Ferentz's offense, as previously mentioned, is currently struggling with its identity. Nonetheless, this isn't as huge an issue as it might be for perhaps Oregon or Oklahoma State, because Ferentz wants to win with defense.
That defense starts with a staunch front line that can get to the quarterback without the help of blitzing. The linebackers have to be fast enough to cover receivers, but also need to be infallible tacklers. The defensive backs don't need to be outstanding in coverage, but they have to be top-notch tacklers that don't let anything get behind them.
Ferentz's mentality is that very few college quarterbacks have the ability and patience to methodically march down the field. Eventually, they're going to mess up, and the Hawkeye defense will pounce when they do.
The problems start when Ferentz doesn't have the defensive personnel to win the way he wants. Or when his opponents have an offense—hello, Northwestern, we salute you—that is custom-made to beat Iowa's bend-don't-break scheme.
When presented with such a situation, Ferentz doesn't have a Plan B. He trots his defense out using the same scheme—a scheme that is doomed to fail—and typically, his Hawkeyes lose.
This was on grand display in 2010, and following the 2010 season, I noted exactly what I am noting here. Iowa needs,
A plan B in case plan A doesn't work out. And maybe even a plan C. Because when things are going wrong and you keep going back to the same failed strategy, that is tantamount to rolling over and giving up, or, if you'd prefer, losing your will to win.
Unfortunately, two seasons later and Ferentz is still trotting out Plan A, and predictably, it is falling flat on its face.
Let Playmakers Make Plays
Historically, the Hawkeyes have had trouble attracting offensive skill players to Iowa City. This has not only been a Ferentz issue; it also existed with Hayden Fry. However, part of the problem, at least as it concerns Ferentz, is that he has a tendency to take the ball out of his playmakers' hands.
One of the most obvious examples occurred against Michigan in 2005.
It was at Kinnick Stadium. With 39 seconds left in the fourth quarter, Michigan was winning 17-14, but Iowa was driving. It was 3rd-and-2 at the Michigan 14, and Iowa had its incumbent Big Ten offensive player of the year, Drew Tate, at quarterback.
Instead of putting the ball in Tate's hands and letting him try to make a play, Ferentz called a shovel pass that got swallowed up in the backfield. The Hawkeyes kicked the field goal, went into overtime and lost.
The end result of the shovel pass and even the game is irrelevant. The point is Iowa's playmaker was Tate, but the coaches didn't put the ball into his hands.
This has been a recurrent theme over the last few years, whether the playmaker was Tate, Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, Marvin McNutt or even Shonn Greene (remember the end of the 2008 Pitt game? Greene's only touch during the final three drives was a dropped pass).
The offensive line may be the foundation of the offense, but it cannot score touchdowns. That is the job of the playmakers.
Find ways to showcase their skills and let them make plays.
Not All Opponents Are Created Equally
One of Kirk Ferentz's best assets is also one of his worst faults. He approaches each game and each opponent equally, as though Central Michigan is as daunting an opponent as their non-directional cousins from Ann Arbor.
The end result is that Ferentz approaches every game with the same basic strategy—don't take any chances, shorten the game, play it close to the vest.
This mentality is exactly what makes Ferentz dangerous against better opponents. Despite all the recent troubles, over the last seven years, Iowa has still been one of the more successful Big Ten teams against elite—i.e. ranked—foes. As well as Wisconsin and Michigan State have fared lately, both have been regularly outmatched when taking on elite competition.
Ferentz plays to keep the game close, and close games depend on one play or one drive. The Hawkeyes, even in their worst years, can put it together for one drive and upset heavy favorites such as 2011 Michigan, 2010 Missouri or 2008 Penn State.
The problem is Ferentz plays with the same mentality even when his team is heavily favored.
This has led to the Hawkeyes losing to teams they should beat, such as 2012 Central Michigan, 2011 Minnesota, 2010 Minnesota, 2009 Northwestern, etc.
Ferentz has to look at a team like Central Michigan as if it has no business being on the same field as his Hawkeyes. His goal should not be to keep it close, but to blow it open early, to assume his group can march up and down the field at will and to not look at a 14-point lead as safe.
In the end, it is Ferentz's failure to beat inferior opponents that is crippling his program.