Iowa Football: What Went Wrong and Can Anything Be Done To Fix It? Part One
After the Iowa-Minnesota debacle on November 27, I've seen any number of fans react in any number of ways.
Some have called for Kirk Ferentz and his entire staff to be fired. In fact, as you can see, FireKirkFerentz.org is now up and running.
Some have called for Ferentz to fire his entire staff. Some have spared the heads of the coaches, but want a complete revamping of Iowa's offensive and defensive schemes.
Some feel that all that is needed are some "tweaks." Some feel that 7-5 is really not as bad as it looks, and have no complaints.
In the end, can you blame the more extreme reactionaries? After all, Iowa is the quintessential Midwestern team, and if there is one word that is unacceptable in the Midwest, it is "quit." Yet, it looked like that is exactly what the Hawkeyes did against Minnesota.
In my opinion, the most rational thought process is somewhere between the barnburners and those in la-la land. Mass firings don't need to take place, but substantial changes do have to be made.
Scheme overhauls are not necessary, but I don't know if minor "tweaks" are enough.
For my own sanity and for your approval, I will attempt to break down what I think went wrong with the Hawks this year. Furthermore, I will attempt to address what I think can be done to correct it.
Finally, I will do it in three separate slideshows. The first will focus squarely on the defense, the second on the offense, and the third on everything else.
In 2010, Iowa lost three players from the previous year's defense: Linebackers Pat Angerer and A.J. Edds and cornerback Amari Spievey. On the surface, that may seem like a lot, but this is college football. Players graduate. That is a fact of the game. When a squad only has three players graduating in a given year, that squad has to feel pretty good.
As we said goodbye to Angerer, Edds, and Spievey, I think most Hawk fans felt pretty good. I was admittedly wary of losing Spievey, as Iowa under Ferentz does not have a history of top-notch cover cornerbacks.
However, with Ferentz's track record of developing linebackers, I felt there would be some degree of reloading at the position. After all, when Fred Barr graduated, Iowa reloaded with Abdul Hodge. When Mike Klinkenborg and Mike Humpal graduated, Pat Angerer and Jeremiah Hunter stepped in.
The fact is, under Ferentz, Iowa has always had well-better-than-average-to-superb linebacker play. I felt that there would be drop off in the position, but the drop off would be minimal. Moreover, an All-American caliber defensive line would help give the new players time to develop.
As we now know, it didn't work out that way. I wrote an article recently that goes into much more detail, but it basically boils down to this: Iowa is not OSU. They don't have that depth of talent.
In Spievey, Iowa graduated the best cover-corner of the Ferentz era. In Angerer and Edds, they graduated two of the three best coverage linebackers of the Ferentz era.
It stands to reason that even if the players that took their positions were solid, they probably wouldn't be as good, and certainly not in their first year of starting. Furthermore, for whatever reason, the defensive line didn't quite live up to its preseason billing.
With that in mind, we are left to ask just how much of an effect the absence of those three players had on this defense?
Over the course of the season the following linebackers missed significant stretches of time: Jeff Tarpinian, Jeremiah Hunter, Tyler Nielsen, Bruce Davis, Troy Johnson, and Dakota Getz.
Coming into the season, along with Lance Tillison and minus Dakota Getz, this group constituted Iowa's top six linebackers.
By the OSU game, four of the above were done for the regular season.
In the final game of the season, the starters were a dinged up Jeremiah Hunter at WILL, a true frosh (James Morris) at MIKE, and an out of position Troy Johnson at LEO (Troy Johnson has practiced at and is more naturally a WILL).
The most notable of all of Iowa's losses was probably senior Jeff Tarpinian. Over the course of his career, Tarp has practiced at and played all three linebacker positions. This season, he was slotted to be the starting MIKE.
He was injured before the season began and missed the first game. However, he came back against Iowa State, Arizona, and Ball State. In those three games—the only games started at MIKE—he averaged over 12.5 tackles per game. That led the Big Ten over that stretch of time.
He then got injured and had been fighting injuries all season until the Northwestern game. At that point, the injuries won out, and his regular season ended.
Iowa's base defense and base defensive scheme is a Tampa-two, which this article covers in depth. For those that don't want to read too heavily into the technical details (I don't blame you), the Tampa-two is an extremely linebacker-dependent scheme that requires fast backers with top notch recognition and coverage skills.
Now, consider that scheme and then consider the inexperience and dropoff from last year's linebackers to this season's would-be starters. Then, consider the substantial dropoff from the would-be starters to their replacements.
In the end, injuries happen, to Iowa and every other team. However, it is probably unfair to expect Iowa to simply rebound from such considerable attrition at one positional group.
I don't think we will ever know just how much Norm Parker's absence and illness affected the defense. On the other hand, I do think it is fair to assume that it had an effect.
Norm is one of the best defensive coaches in the game. He has been one of the key components of Iowa's success under Kirk Ferentz, and it is a pleasure to call him a Hawkeye. The 40-plus years of experience Norm brings to the table is irreplaceable.
However, it is time for Norm Parker to retire, and if he refuses to make that decision then Kirk Ferentz has to make it for him.
I take no pleasure in writing that, but the fact is, for health reasons, Norm Parker cannot be depended upon to be a regular member of Iowa's coaching staff; not this season or any season in the future.
Not only do his health issues upset the team dynamic, but a college football team is only allowed so many coaches. According to article 11.7.2 in the NCAA bylaws: There shall be a limit of one head coach, nine assistant coaches and two graduate assistant coaches who may be employed by an institution in bowl subdivision football.
As an absentee coach, Norm is using up one of those very valuable nine spots.
Needless to say, I have nothing but respect for the way Kirk Ferentz runs his program. His loyalty to his staff is without measure, and it is this very quality that instills me—and so much of the Iowa fanbase—with respect for the man.
Nevertheless, Kirk Ferentz has to run an organization, and the well-being of that organization is jeopardized by the medical unpredictability of one of its members.
This is an admittedly cold-blooded decision, but being the head of an organization requires those sorts of decisions.
It is my opinion that one way or the other, Norm should not be Iowa's defensive coordinator next year, and it is Kirk Ferentz's responsibility to make sure that happens.
This season, much has been made of Iowa's defensive position coaches. Most specifically, defensive backs coach Phil Parker, linebackers coach Darrell Wilson, and to a lesser degree, defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski.
In the absence of Norm, the majority of playcalling duties have fallen on Parker and Wilson. Parker has been with Ferentz since he became the head coach at Iowa, and Wilson came to Iowa after the 2001 season.
Needless to say, we are left to ask if the failures of the defense rest primarily on poor playcalling. Is Norm that much of a step up from Parker and/or Wilson?
I don't know the answer to that question. Furthermore, if Norm does leave the team, would it be advisable for Ferentz to promote from within, and give the D-coordinator position to Parker or Wilson? Or would he be better advised looking outside of the the Iowa family? Again, I don't know.
However, I do know that Ferentz does tend to populate his staff with like-minded (i.e. conservative-minded) coaches. It is arguable whether this is a good or a bad thing.
In the Blackheartgoldpants Iowa-Minnesota postgame chat, one of the board moderators made a good point. He noted, "Great leaders are not scared of ambitious subordinates, and unambitious subordinates (or at least too many) can be an even bigger problem. Richard Nixon—of whom I am no great fan—once said, 'I don’t need a yes man, I already know that I’m right.' Kirk needs some people to chickity check him. Cause this year, he lost his way."
Does Kirk need assistant coaches and coordinators that will mirror his own philosophy, or does he need people that will give a distinctly alternate point of view, thereby keeping him honest?
There are two key issues here. First, is Iowa's defense predictable and secondly, does that matter?
As previously mentioned, Iowa's base defense is a Tampa-two. If you read that article, you may have taken particular notice of the following: "One of the great things about the Tampa-2 is that there is so many coverage switches, blitzes, stunts, etc that you can run out of it without compromising your defense...There is also man coverages, man-unders, zone blitzes. Just about everything that a normal defense runs, can be run out of a Tampa-2 base. Again, the Tampa-2 IS a coverage, but the concept is an entire defense."
Now, I'm not going to kid you. The writer of that article was primarily writing about the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers. While the Iowa Hawkeyes do have all of those same options available to them, they do not utilize them as much. However, Iowa does do different things. It just usually involves little wrinkles most people don't notice, as opposed to full-on blitzing.
With that said, yes, overall, Iowa's defense is predictable. Now, does that matter?
I would argue that usually, it does not. This year's statistics are misleading, but over a ten year period, they tell the whole story. Iowa's scoring defense over the past ten years has been nationally ranked: (starting in 2001) 34th, 24th, 7th, 16th, 22nd, 45th, 12th, 5th, 8th, 7th.
As I said, this season's seventh ranking is misleading, but if you don't believe the statistics, trust your memory. Any Hawkeye fan above the age of 16 remembers how suffocating the defense was in 2003, 2004, 2008, and 2009.
Do the doubters really believe that the D's in those years were any less predictable? Do they think that teams haven't known what Iowa was going to do for the past 10 years? Do they think the opposing team's coordinators, who know 1,000 times more about football than I will ever know, took 10 years to figure out what I knew in 2002?
In my opinion, the problems with this year's Hawkeye defense started with a conglomeration of things that, frankly, were out of the coaches' control.
First of all, Iowa began the year with a substantial drop off at linebacker; a position upon which Iowa's defensive scheme heavily depends. Add to that a dropoff in one of the cornerbacks. The linebacker drop off was exacerbated by a boatload of injuries. Iowa then not only lost their defensive coordinator, but they lost 40 years worth of football experience in their brain trust.
Finally, Iowa played a number of experienced quarterbacks this season; experienced quarterbacks with the rare ability to execute schemes against them.
It is here where the blame begins to fall at the feet of the head coach.
Iowa had five losses on the season. They would have had six losses if not for a dropped ball in the end zone. All five/six of those losses took place in the exact same way.
That signifies a lack of adjustments on the coaches' part.
Imagine you're a Hawkeye football player. The coaches hand out the gameplans and the plays and the players execute them. Imagine trying to execute them and the opposing team counters them, en route to a win.
Frustrating, but you go into the next game. Coaches hand down the exact same gameplan. Same results. Wash, rinse, repeat. Wash, rinse, repeat.
After two or three or four games, if I were a player, I might lose faith in my coaches. End result: Minnesota game.
In sum, no, I do not think Iowa needs to completely revamp their defensive philosophy. In fact, I don't even think they need to tweak it.
What they need is 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.
And that is exactly what the Hawkeye defense did against Minnesota, and why shouldn't they? From an outsider's point of view, that's what it seemed like their coaches were doing.