Iowa Football: What Went Wrong and Can Anything Be Done to Fix It, Part Two
As I mentioned in the previous installment of this public catharsis, quite a few things went wrong for Iowa this season. What started as a possible national championship run wound up an ugly and embarrassing 7-5.
The fact is, I don't think that many people are especially taken aback by any offensive woes that Iowa had. After all, offensive woes for this group are par for the course.
I think it was the defensive struggles that were a new and bitter pill for Hawk fans to swallow.
As for those offensive woes, when you look at Iowa's statistics over the last 10 years, you begin to see why fans have somewhat low expectations.
In the last decade, Iowa's scoring offense has ranked: (starting in 2001) 45th, 13th, 92nd, 101st, 22nd, 27th, 109th, 53rd, 89th, and 61st.
I do think those numbers have to be put in perspective, but I will save that for the third installment.
For now, the question is what needs to change with this offense, if anything, for the Hawks to avoid another season like 2010? Or perhaps another way to put it is what needs to change with this offense, so that the team's fate doesn't always rest solely on the defense's shoulders?
Ken O'Keefe: Offensive Coordinator
The job of the offensive coordinator might be the hottest seat in all levels of football.
Somehow, everybody knows more than the offensive coordinator, and unless your team scores on every single play, the offensive coordinator doesn't know what he's doing.
That is certainly true with Iowa's offensive coordinator, Ken O'Keefe. In effect, we are left to ask, how much of that vitriol is gut reaction and how much has merit?
Moreover, it has to be remembered that Ken O'Keefe only calls the plays. The overall direction of the offense is in Kirk Ferentz's hands. O'Keefe does act as a convenient whipping boy for Iowa fans, but O'Keefe implements what Ferentz wants.
In effect, where it concerns O'Keefe, the offensive coordinator, I will only concern myself with play calling and not offensive philosophy.
Generally speaking, I have no problem with the way O'Keefe calls the majority of his plays. Some people complain about Iowa's predictability, but what's wrong with an off-tackle on the third play of the game?
On the other hand, I do feel that O'Keefe is sorely lacking in situational play calling. Specifically, his goalline, third down, and especially two-minute offense play calling. Anybody that watched the Hawkeyes this season knows exactly what I'm talking about, so I won't rehash the details.
That said, there is a certain reality to face: It is highly unlikely that Ferentz is going to fire O'Keefe, so if there are to be positive steps, it will have to come from O'Keefe himself.
Therefore, I don't know what to say other than O'Keefe really has to commit to a few basic rules of which I'm sure he's aware:
- Time-consuming three-yard plays during the two-minute offense are inadvisable
- When facing third-and-seven, most receivers should run routes that are eight yards or more
- Don't run a fade to the short side of the field
- Don't run a fade to a receiver that is 5'9"
- It is pointless running an end-around when the field is a sheet of ice
- When facing an obvious blitz, there is no NCAA rule that disallows screen passes
- When your quarterback is struggling, look up from your papers, and call easy timing plays that will help him get into a rhythm
- When you've got a playmaker like DJK (last week's embarrassment aside, he was a playmaker), find ways to get the ball into his hands in the open field
- In the two-minute offense huddle, always call two plays
- The quarterback should be in the shotgun in the two-minute offense and all obvious passing downs
- Down one score with six minutes to play is a lot of time. The offense doesn't have to become one-dimensional yet
I'm sure there are other small things, but if Iowa/KOK could commit to the above and improve their situational play, I think the offense could improve dramatically. Furthermore, if Iowa is to be successful in the Big Ten of the future, I think they have to improve, if not dramatically, at least noticeably.
Ken O'Keefe: Quarterback Coach
Ken O'Keefe, who played wide receiver in his college playing days at John Carroll University, is not only the offensive coordinator; he is the quarterbacks coach.
He took that spot over in 2000, after Chuck Long left the position (or, if you believe the rumor mill, after Kirk Ferentz quietly nudged Long out).
I don't know if one has to play quarterback at a high level in order to be a quarterbacks coach. After all, Kirk Ferentz played linebacker, yet his coaching specialty is offensive line. However, I can confidently say that the last three quarterbacks that have started for Iowa seem to have either regressed, stagnated, or lost their essential spark at the end of their careers.
Let's start with Drew Tate; Iowa's signal caller from 2004-2006. His sophomore year started with a bang. He carried the Hawks on his shoulders en route to becoming the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. In his junior year, he was even better, but most fans conveniently forget that, because Iowa's record wasn't as good.
However, in his senior year he fell apart. There were extenuating circumstances to his senior year meltdown. Specifically, his season was marred by injuries, and his receiving corps was...well, calling them lousy is being generous.
Nevertheless, it has been documented that when Tate went home after the regular season, his stepfather—high school coach Dick Olin—noticed his mechanics were off, and proceeded to help him make adjustments. After a few weeks with Olin, Tate returned to form in Iowa's Alamo Bowl loss.
I realize Olin taught Tate how to be a quarterback, but shouldn't a Big Ten quarterbacks coach have noticed that sort of thing?
Jake Christensen was the next starter. For most of 2007, Christensen looked lost, and in some fairness, so did much of his supporting cast. Yet, as Christensen started the season in 2008, he looked about the same (albeit with a much better supporting cast). Enter Ricky Stanzi.
Stanzi improved moderately from year one to year two. Through the first seven games of his third season, he was playing at an unprecedented level. He had the highest efficiency rating of any quarterback not playing a junior varsity schedule. Then he seemed to get a severe case of interception-phobia, which constricted his game.
Moreover, stats or not, it seemed that throughout the season, Stanzi just didn't have the moxie he had in 2009.
I've gone over it at some length, and it is not my intention to pile it on the Americanzi. But we are left to ask, can O'Keefe develop quarterbacks? Does Iowa need to devote one of its nine assistant coaches to the full-time position of quarterbacks coach? Does Iowa need a quarterbacks coach that has actually played quarterback?
Kirk Ferentz: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
I have a theory as to why Kirk Ferentz almost always opts to receive the opening kickoff, as opposed to deferring like almost all coaches.
He does this because he knows most coaches, if they have the choice, are going to get the ball to start the second half. Consequently, he knows that if he wins the coin toss, he can depend on receiving the ball. Conversely, if the other team wins the coin toss, he can still depend on receiving the ball. In other words, he can depend on receiving the ball either way; he can depend on his routine.
This may make no sense to most people, but it makes perfect sense to me. I'm not saying Kirk Ferentz has a full blown case of OCD, but I am saying he probably has obsessive-compulsive tendencies. It is possible this is why I have always liked Ferentz. I can relate to him. I know exactly where he's coming from.
And like any OCD sufferer, it is in his best interest to accept the fact that he can't control everything.
The crippling effects of this (on his team and program) have been no more apparent than in the way his offense is often run. It is as if he refuses to break off from his scripted plays when the game situation calls for an adjustment.
One example of this was in the Minnesota game. Due to the weather conditions, the field was a sheet of ice by the second half.
In those conditions, Iowa ran two end-arounds. End-arounds are used to keep over-pursuing defensive ends honest, which, in turn, slows them down. However, over-pursuing defensive ends are not a worry on a sheet of ice. They are physically unable to over-pursue. They have to stay at home.
In effect, a defensive end that stays at home is a sure antidote to a successful end-around.
End result of two second quarter end-arounds: One five-yard loss by Paul Chaney Jr. and one three-yard gain by DJK. It should also be noted that these end-arounds were run while Iowa was having a fair amount of success attacking Minnesota's gut with their tailback.
Again, I'm sure people will want to completely blame O'Keefe for these bone-headed decisions, and that is fair. Nevertheless, Ferentz controls the direction of the offense. Ferentz approves of the gameplan. Ferentz can override any play he wants on either side of the field.
Therefore, Ferentz's inflexibility in certain areas can probably be fairly labeled a distinct liability to this team, and particularly to the offense.
Philosophy vs. Execution
Almost without fail, whenever Iowa loses, Kirk Ferentz points to a "failure to execute" as the problem. A huge number of Iowa fans would say the real problem is that the offense is "vanilla" and "predictable."
Who is right?
In my opinion, Ferentz is right, but there is more to it than that.
Nevertheless, for the time being, just consider Iowa's offense. It is a pro-style offense that uses primarily ace, pro, and I-formations. Iowa still regularly uses a fullback, despite the fact that the fullback is being replaced by the H-back, both in college and the pros.
The Hawks also use a lot of tight ends, to the point that Iowa's second tight end is virtually a starter.
If you looked at the above links, you will have noticed that Iowa is decidedly not a spread team. More often than not, they keep a lot of players in a small area. As this is the antithesis of the spread, it invites defenses to blitz and drop safeties into the box.
Moreover, as silly as it sounds, it's a lot like football video games, in that a spread offense makes it easier for a player to see what's going on, because everything isn't bunched into a smaller space. When you play EA Sports NCAA Football, you have more control with the spread offenses.
Actually playing football is considerably more challenging than the video games, but the concept is still the same.
Due to this, and due to Iowa's pro-style formations, the Hawks need to execute more consistently and efficiently than a spread team like Michigan or Purdue.
Needless to say, it is asking a lot for a bunch of 18-23 year olds to do this, particularly if NCAA rules only allow them to spend so much time per week practicing. Consequently, it is no surprise that the only year that Ferentz had a top 20 offense was 2002. That year, he also happened to have four soon-to-be NFL offensive linemen, one soon-to-be NFL All-Pro tight end, and a Davey O'Brien Award winning quarterback.
In essence, this is the primary reason that the spread offenses are in such vogue in college football; because every single player doesn't have to execute as well on every single play in order for the offense to be successful.
Mind you, I am not advocating for Iowa to become a spread offense. Far from it, as there is very little that I find more boring than watching Rich Rodriguez's Michigan offense (yes, I realize I am in the minority).
Still, Iowa could run out of more three-wide sets, or use a lot fewer fullback looks. Basically, the less defenders in the box, the less perfect the execution has to be, and the more Iowa can withstand a mental flub on the part of one of its players.
Let's start with the predictability argument.
I think the predictability argument flies out the window if the team executes. Consider the fourth-ranked scoring offense in the country—the Wisconsin Badgers. They are nothing if not predictable. In fact, they are more predictable than Iowa. Iowa at least has a deep game and a much more potent play action game.
Yet, the Badgers score. A lot. The reason they score a lot is because they execute. They invite teams to stop them. Most teams fail miserably. When teams fail to stop plays that they know are coming, that team usually winds up psychologically beaten.
Then there is the argument against conservatism.
What has to be understood is that the nature of Ferentz's philosophy and the nature of Iowa's entire system is that the offense does not have to score 60 points a game. It doesn't even have to score 40. In fact, usually 28 should be enough. Almost as important as scoring in Iowa's system is taking care of the football.
Again, I'll go more heavily into that in the third installment, but for now, over the last 10 years, the Iowa offense has averaged 27.89 points per game. That puts them around 55th in the country over that time period. If one takes into consideration the aforementioned 28 points, then that is about enough (though two or three more than that would be a nice cushion).
However, over the last five years, Iowa has averaged 24.98 points per game. That is not enough. In fact, that is just over a field goal too little, which has very regularly been Iowa's story over the second half of this decade.
Over the last five years, Iowa has lost 11 games—or just over 45 percent of their total losses during that time—by three points or less.
In short, Iowa's conservative offense works, but it leaves a small margin for error. The bottom line is Iowa needs to find a way to regain that extra field goal per game.
I do not think Iowa has to completely revamp its offense. I don't even think there needs to be any serious consideration of firing O'Keefe.
However, I do think O'Keefe has to get a few odds and ends figured out. He has been at this for long enough that the two-minute offense should not send him into a panic. As I said on a previous slide, some things are fairly fundamental. A relatively knowledgeable armchair quarterback should know them. I refuse to believe O'Keefe doesn't.
In effect, he has got to implement his knowledge into the actual game. Overall, I think he does a good job of game-planning. Nevertheless, like so many OCD sufferers, Ferentz—and by extension O'Keefe— becomes lost when he has to deviate from his original plan.
"The card says we're going to do an end-around, and that's what we're going to do."
In sum, I'm sure a lot of Iowa fans will disagree with me, but, while I do think O'Keefe and the offense have their issues, I don't think they are a disaster. I just think they need to tweak some things and seriously reassess how they approach certain in-game situations.
Really, the biggest problem lies in the special teams, which I will get to in part three.