In this age of the spread offense, when eight of the soon-to-be 12 teams in the historically conservative Big Ten run some variation on the spread, Iowa has remained true to the Big Ten ethos of "three yards and a cloud of dust."
Iowa leads with the run, and, if all goes well, finishes with the run.
As it happens, this offensive philosophy has drawn its share of detractors. Not only is this offense considered "unexciting" by many, but it is also run in what could be considered a conservative, and perhaps uncreative approach.
Over the last 11 years, Iowa's two primary sets have included the I and the ace backfield, usually with two tight ends. Every once in a while, Iowa has thrown a three-wide in there.
Certainly, the Hawkeyes like to dance around with the tight ends, motioning them into the slot or flexing them out. Nevertheless, outside of that, this is an offense that would make somebody like Florida's Urban Meyer or Michigan's Rich Rodriguez scratch his head at the utter dumbfounded simplicity of it.
To complicate this, head coach Kirk Ferentz's teams have typically not led with their offense. Outside of a few anomalous years—most notably, 2001, 2002, 2005, and 2008—this has been a team that has been content to let a stingy defense and strong special teams play win the day.
When fans have wanted points, blowouts, or for the Hawks to drop the kill stroke, Kirk Ferentz has ground out the clock in the face of nine-man fronts, and been content to punt and trust his defense. He has even taken safeties on multiple occasions, instead of giving his offense a chance to move the ball, and thus, also to turn the ball over.
That said, I am not one that has spent the better part of the Ferentz era lamenting the Hawkeye offense and its conservatism.
For me, Iowa is lunch pail football. As a friend once noted to me, "I like how teams like Iowa and Wisconsin don't try to hide or trick you with their gameplan. They essentially are saying, 'You know what we're going to do and here it is. Stop us if you can.' That is so bad ass."
Nevertheless, in Iowa's most recent game against Iowa State, they got kind of—dare I say—exotic.
The Iowa offense regularly rotated different sets, formations, and looks into the game. They also ran and passed out of every look, and substituted regularly at the receiver and running back positions.
They led with their traditional I and ace sets. However, they also ran a lot of three-wides. They sprinkled in a liberal serving of shotgun sets. And, I don't know if that many people noticed it, but Iowa ran a five-wide on one play.
It wasn't a true five-wide as the tight end was on the line. Nevertheless, quarterback Ricky Stanzi was in the shotgun, standing all alone in the backfield.
As it turned out, it was probably Stanzi's worst throw of the game. He tried to force it on the periphery to receiver Marvin McNutt, but ISU's Leonard Johnson read the play and defended the pass. This is a pass with which he has always had trouble, regardless of the formation.
Still, it goes to show a number of things. Firstly, it shows just how much confidence Kirk Ferentz and Iowa offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe have in Stanzi.
Secondly, it gives a hint to just how versatile the Iowa offense can be this year.
Certainly, Iowa is still a traditional Big Ten run-first team, as evidenced by their numbers on Saturday. They ran exactly 70 plays—50 of them, or 71 percent, were running plays.
This is more than the relative 60/40 balance that Kirk Ferentz would ideally like to achieve, but in a blowout victory, that is the way it tends to go.
More importantly, it will serve to keep future defenses on their toes.
Historically, against Iowa, teams could sell out to stop the run. They could put eight and nine men in the box, and blitz mercilessly.
On the other hand, if Iowa's sets do not give a hint as to what the Hawks are doing, and if their personnel could go in any number of directions, then opposing teams have to play more cautiously.
In closing, I'm not about to predict an Iowa offense as explosive as Oregon or Boise State. And I wouldn't want it that way. However, it goes towards facilitating Kirk Ferentz's offensive philosophy of balance, and establishing the run first.
Furthermore, it's still as "bad ass" as ever.
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