Iowa Football: Analysis of the Hawks' Abortive Gameplan Against Iowa State

David Fidler Correspondent ISeptember 12, 2011

So what went wrong? Why did Iowa lose to an obviously physically inferior opponent?

I'm trying to keep an unbiased outlook, but it's difficult when it was only by the grace of Iowa State penalties, missed field goals and unforced turnovers that the Hawks kept it close and brought it to overtime. If not for the Cyclones' generosity, Iowa State would have won by two touchdowns.

Of course, that is a hypothetical scenario, and I don't believe in those kind of scenarios. I believe in dealing with reality. However, part of the problem is that Kirk Ferentz and his staff failed to do that in their game against ISU.

They went in with a game plan—arguably, an antiquated game plan—and refused to alter it when the direction of the game veered in an unplanned, though predictable, direction. Given the way much of last season went, this sort of outcome is becoming a statistical fact and no longer an aberration.

With that said, let's look at what went wrong and some of the few things that went right.



Oh Ken O'Keefe. I have defended you multiple times. Though I have said you run the worst two-minute offense in the country and have trouble developing quarterbacks, I have still maintained that your play-calling is not that bad. I might have to take it back.

First of all, Iowa opened the game up with a bang. In 12 plays and just under six minutes, they marched the ball down the field. They took advantage of their physical superiority, and played like a team that knew it should win. They played the way they should play against opponents like Iowa State (or Indiana or Louisiana-Monroe, etc.).

For those that don't know how O'Keefe and Ferentz run their offense, those opening plays are scripted. In other words, Iowa knows the first 10-15 plays it is going to run when they step out of the locker room.

That drive ultimately accounted for 26.54 percent of the Hawkeyes' offensive yards-from-scrimmage in the non-overtime portion of the game.

Once O'Keefe started to call plays on the fly—plays that had to deal with the situation on the field—the offense fell apart.

As for those plays, Iowa has two NFL-caliber receivers, who, along with Riley Reiff, are Iowa's two best offensive players.

The more experienced receiver—Marvin McNutt—is 6'4". The other receiver—Keenan Davis—is 6'3".

Iowa State's cornerbacks are 5'10" and 5'7" respectively.

By the middle of the second quarter, ISU sold out to stop the run. They dropped at least one and sometimes two safeties into the box on every play. They were giving the Hawks man coverage on the outside on every single play—Iowa's giants against Iowa State's midgets.

Yet, at times it was as though O'Keefe wasn't aware of this.

Quarterback James Vandenberg should have been throwing over the top at least once on every drive. And when he wasn't throwing over-the-top, he should have thrown quick out-routes and curls to McNutt and Davis. Throw quick outs and curls in the right place and the best Iowa State's corners could have done was made the tackle.

Instead, Iowa had 43 rushes to 29 passes. Davis had five catches and McNutt had four. Just to reiterate, the Hawks consistently ran running back Marcus Coker into a wall of red-and-yellow. Frankly, it's a testament to Coker that he managed 3.9 yards-per-carry.

And I know people are going to harp on Coker for coughing the ball up for the third time in two games, and in that respect, they would be right. But O'Keefe's play-calling was doing the young running back no favors in helping to build up his obviously damaged confidence.

He was also doing Vandenberg no favors, as his non-scripted plays gave the Iowa offense no opportunity to get into a rhythm.

Another problem with the offense has been the tight ends. I recently wrote that Iowa "reloads at tight end," and that "There won't be much if any falloff from last year's starter, Allen Reisner, to Herman."

I guess I was wrong. Herman has blocked very well, but overall, the tight ends have played considerably below expectations. By my unofficial count, Iowa tight ends have dropped six passes in two games: three by Herman, two by Zach Derby and one by C.J. Fiedorowicz. Those drops go along with four combined catches on the season by all three of them. 

The Iowa offense without an NFL-ready tight end is...well, it's what we've seen. It is an Iowa offense that doesn't have a dump off option or a go-to receiver on waggles and roll outs. Even though JVB is more appropriate as a pocket quarterback than mobile quarterback—unlike Stanzi—waggles and roll outs are still the bread-and-butter of the Hawks' offense.

Furthermore, it appears that I overestimated the abilities of the offensive line. I felt that it would be one of the best in the conference, and that it would lead to a top three finish in the conference in scoring.

Generally speaking, the line hasn't been bad, but it has not been dominant, especially when you consider that Iowa State and certainly Tennessee Tech are not Nebraska.

In my opinion, the sports hernia that has kept—and probably will keep—sophomore guard Nolan MacMillan on the sidelines has crippled the potential of the Hawkeye offense. Moreover, his replacement, junior Matt Tobin, has been noticeably lackluster, and he probably should be replaced by freshman Brandon Scherff or fellow freshman Andrew Donnal.

I know. There is no way I could know that Scherff or Donnal would play better than Tobin. That is true, but at this point, I'd take the learning curve of a superior player to the limitations of the upperclassman.

Then there is the...



To begin, strong safety Jordan Bernstine missed the Iowa State game with strep throat—my Lord, the bad luck he has had throughout his career. His absence was palpable, as the secondary and special teams lacked a measure of physicality that I believe he would have brought (despite the fact he has yet to start a game).

Cornerback Greg Castillo was mercilessly picked on all day, and strong safety Collin Sleeper took far too passive an approach to his responsibilities. If Bernstine had been healthy, he either would have taken the cornerback position or better, he would have started at safety.

The good news is that true sophomore weakside linebacker Christian Kirksey looked terrific. The bad news is that true sophomore middle linebacker James Morris disappeared at times. I have no idea what happened to him, but I have to believe this was an anomaly, as this was probably the weakest game thus far in his career. 

Despite these issues, the back seven wasn't bad in coverage today. The problem was even the best back seven can only maintain coverage for so long.

Which brings me to the defensive line and the pass rush.

The line was manhandled. The Iowa State offensive line is okay, but the way they pushed around the Iowa D-line on both the run and the pass rush said more about the Hawks than the Clones.

Moreover, I give ISU quarterback Steele Jantz all the credit in the world. He is talented and played a great game. But, at times, he made the Hawkeye linemen look clownish as they tried to get their paws on him. And with all due respect to Jantz, he isn't one of the three best rushing quarterbacks Iowa will face this season.

Which brings up the issue of dual-threat quarterbacks. It appears that Iowa has no antidote to them. That is a problem as the Hawks will face either seven or eight (depending upon who Penn State starts) more dual-threat quarterbacks this season.

In the end, I don't know what the remedy is to the pathetic Iowa pass rush or the Hawkeyes' inability to beat dual-threat quarterbacks out of the spread. I do know that the answer for one is probably the answer for both, and Iowa defensive coordinator Norm Parker had better find the answer, because what Iowa has been doing just isn't working.

Speaking of Parker, at the end of last season I said that the best thing Norm could do for the team was step down, as his heath had become too big of a distraction.

I stand by that statement, but for a different reason than I first mentioned. Specifically...


Special Teams

Even more specifically, kick and punt coverage.

Regardless what the specific stats say, anybody that has watched Iowa play over the last few seasons knows that kickoff coverage has cost the Hawkeyes dearly. That was evident in Saturday's game against Iowa State where two kick returners averaged 31.8 YPR on five returns. Comparatively, ISU return man Josh Lenz averaged 19.60 YPR against Northern Iowa.

Also, Iowa kicked one out of bounds in the second quarter, which led to a huge shift in field position.

Furthermore, Lenz averaged 12 YPR on two punt returns. He averaged 3.67 YPR on three returns against UNI.

What does this have to do with Norm Parker, who is strictly the defensive coordinator?

That is exactly it. He is strictly the defensive coordinator. Through 2007, he was both the defensive coordinator and inside linebackers coach.

In 2008, outside linebacker coach and co-special teams coordinator Darrell Wilson took over coaching all three linebacker positions in addition to his special teams duties. This coaching realignment was because Parker's health no longer made it feasible for him to coach a specific position.

Collegiate special teams are not like pro special teams. They are fluid, and for the most part, there is a distinctly different special teams cast every year. Fans know who the specialists are, but other than that, the special teams are populated with mostly young, inexperienced players, as "the suicide squad" is not an area where a team will risk its best players.

Thus, if a team is consistently having problems in this area on a year-to-year basis, it is not the players but the coaching.

Iowa's special teams coaches are Lester Erb—who is also the running back coach—and Darrell Wilson. The two have been the special teams co-coordinators since 2002, with Erb on the job since 2000.

For the first nine years of the Ferentz era, Iowa was known for its strong special teams play.

Since 2008, and especially for the last two seasons, the special teams play and particularly the kickoff coverage has been erratic. I would also argue that yesterday's punt coverage might be an indication that former All-Big Ten punter Ryan Donahue covered up some punt coverage issues.

In short, Norm Parker's limited ability to function as a coach could be causing Darrell Wilson to be spread too thin. This is an arguable point, but what isn't arguable is that the Iowa coverage units have been terrible for the past two years, and erratic for the past four.

Somebody should answer for that, because in the end, Ferentz-coached teams will never be successful with mediocre special teams. Exceptional special teams play is a prerequisite for Ferentz-coached teams to succeed

Which brings me to...


The Head Coach

I believe in Kirk Ferentz's conservatism. I have defended it. However, he has got to learn when to step away from it.

When the contest is tied, you are in a hostile environment, there is 1:17 left on the clock, you have two timeouts, a veteran quarterback—if not in game experience then time in the system—two talented receivers, the opposing team has all the momentum and your defense is exhausted and can't stop the opposing offense—when that is the situation you try to get the ball into field goal range and win in regulation.

That is not aggressive football. That is not whatever the opposite of conservative is. That is common sense, and it is true 100 percent of the time.

Moreover, when it's the same situation and you are in triple overtime and it's fourth-and-inches, you don't go for the field goal. Ever.

Again, Kirk Ferentz was not paying attention to what was going on, on the field. His defense could not hold. The only way the Hawkeyes were going to win was via offense. He refused to allow that to happen.

And here we are. Iowa is now 1-1 in 2011. Since 2006, Kirk Ferentz is 6-12 in games decided by three points or less. I haven't crunched the numbers, but I'd guess that is near the bottom of the pile in the conference and country.

It is made worse by the fact that, win or lose, many of those games did not have to be three-point games. Arkansas State in 2009 comes to mind.

I'm hoping the Iowa State contest was a bit of a fluke. Moreover, I'm hoping 2011 will be something like 2008, where early season bumps matured a team that turned out to be pretty good. Finally, I acknowledge the possibility that I am still too close to and emotional over what could fairly be called a poorly coached game.

Nonetheless, right now, I see Iowa as favorites to beat Indiana and Louisiana-Monroe.

Other than that, as long as they maintain their current offensive and defensive mindsets, all of the other games this season will be tossups at best, and that could make achieving bowl eligibility a tall task.


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