Iowa Hawkeye Football: Don't Call Ferentz's Decisions Against ISU Conservative

David Fidler Correspondent ISeptember 14, 2011

IOWA CITY, IA - NOVEMBER 20:  University of Iowa Hawkeyes head coach Kirk Ferentz looks on from the sideline during pre game warm ups before game action against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Kinnick Stadium on November 20, 2010 in Iowa City, Iowa. Ohio State won 20-17 over Iowa. (Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images)
David Purdy/Getty Images

I am a conservative person by nature.

I double-knot my shoelaces. I don't ever speed. I fear change. If you look inside my wallet you will find all of the bills facing the same direction, ones on the outside, fives on the inside and any larger denominations hiding between the two.

I only gamble with money I can afford to lose and I don't put my savings in the stock market because, my friends, that is gambling with money I can't afford to lose.

In effect, I jibe with Kirk Ferentz. I understand how he thinks. His preference for taking the opening kickoff makes sense to me. More often than not, he can depend on the other team deferring. Therefore, he takes the conservative approach. He takes the sameness and consistency that he knows and expects.

While I can't say I wholly agreed with his decision to sit on the ball at the end of regulation against OSU in 2009, I understood where he was coming from. Moreover, if I had gotten off my couch and found myself in that same position, I would have done the same thing.

I thought taking a safety against Penn State in 2004 was genius, not because it worked out, but because it dealt with the situation on the field.

But his decisions against Iowa State in 2011 were nothing less than infuriating, and can in no way be called "conservative." In fact, it would be more appropriate to call his decisions obsessive-compulsive—the irrational and desperate act of clinging to what one knows and is comfortable with over the most obvious, traditional and yes, conservative decisions.

Following the Iowa State game, Marc Morehouse of the Cedar Rapids Gazette wrote an article in which he essentially said that Ferentz's conservative coaching style has highs and lows, and Iowa fans have to learn to accept that lows such as the Iowa State game go with the territory.

I have a great deal of respect for Morehouse. I regularly read his blog and often link to it. His analysis is generally spot-on and any Iowa news he might have is always dependable. However, I disagree with him in this case.

There are a number of different definitions of the word "conservative," but in this case, the most appropriate one is "marked by moderation or caution." Another, more informal definition might be a tendency to avoid gambling at all costs, but when one has to gamble, to play the highest percentage possible.

In other words, Ferentz's tendency to always play two deep safeties could be called moderate or cautious. His tendency not to blitz is conservative and safe.

Between 2006-10, Iowa had the third-fewest fourth-down attempts in the Big Ten (after Wisconsin and Ohio State, who, under Jim Tressel was also a bastion of conservative play calling). That is cautious, moderate and thus, conservative play calling.

However, when one looks at Ferentz's two key decisions late in the game against Iowa State, moderate and safe are not the words that come to mind.

To begin, the situation needs context.

Iowa was at Iowa State. It was the fourth quarter and ISU had just tied the game with 77 seconds left on the clock. The rivalry was in full bloom and the Cyclones and their fans were pumped. It is arguable whether the same could be said for the Hawkeyes, but that is a different issue.

The Iowa defense hadn't forced ISU to punt since early in the second quarter. The reason Iowa State had only managed 24 points was due to two missed field goals, a bevy of ill-timed penalties and three lost fumbles.

Momentum was clearly on the Clones' side, but Iowa had the ball at the 20 with time on the clock and two timeouts.

They had an experienced quarterback and two quality receivers that physically outclassed the opposing cornerbacks.

The traditional, least risky, and thus, conservative, thing to do in that specific situation was to try to move the ball 50 yards and get into field goal territory.

Sitting on the ball in that situation was borderline radical. At the very least, it wasn't the safe thing to do considering the ineptitude the Iowa defense had displayed up to that point in the game.

Put simply, given the poor play of the defense, how would anybody in his right mind call choosing to go into overtime a "safe" bet?

Many people have compared Ferentz's decision with his aforementioned decision to sit on the ball at the close of regulation against OSU in 2009. Nevertheless, those were entirely different scenarios.

The game against OSU featured a redshirt freshman quarterback starting his first collegiate game. Iowa had good receivers, but DJK, McNutt and Moeaki did not physically outclass the Ohio State defenders.

Speaking of the OSU defense, with all due respect to ISU, even if the 2011 Clones were playing well above their limitations, they were still not in the same league as the 2009 Buckeye defense.

On top of that, if Iowa tried to move down the field, OSU would have run a pass prevent defense. That would have required a young JVB to complete multiple passes in the seam—something he failed to do that night, but something he has since learned to do ably.

Finally, Iowa's 2009 defense was one of the best in the country, and had done an adequate—though not great—job of containing Terrelle Pryor and the Buckeye offense. The 2011 Iowa team couldn't say the same thing in regards to the Clone offense and Steele Jantz.

As for Ferentz's second dubious decision to not go for the first down in triple overtime when faced with 4th-and-inches—that was just a matter of rolling over and dying.

In short, Ferentz is undoubtedly conservative, and that is something that manifests itself in the way he approaches football.

Moreover, I agree with Morehouse that Ferentz's style and conservatism have brought home more success than failure, and overall, I am in the Ferentz camp as regards his bend-don't-break mentality and his refusal to go for it on fourth downs.

Nonetheless, his decisions against Iowa State do not qualify in this capacity. There was nothing conservative about those decisions, and, in fact, one could fairly refer to them as "pathologically risk averse."

In the end, that is not conservative. That is not paying attention to what is happening on the field. That is playing scared.