Mad Town: Iowa's Offensive Philosophy

By HaydensDumplings on November 13, 2019 at 5:45 pm
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© Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
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Breaking news: Albert just bought a condo on Lake Mendota. After living in Madison for the past three years, he decided he wanted something a little more permanent. Albert’s reasoning: he's going to be here for a while.

With Saturday night’s disappointment, Wisconsin claims the bull for the fourth year in a row and for the seventh out of the last eight years. And if we--as masochistic Hawkeye fans--are completely honest with ourselves, Iowa’s 2015 victory in Madison was an aberration (Joel Stave, en route to his four turnover masterpiece, tripped on Iowa’s one yard line to preserve the Hawkeyes’ 2015 escape). If it wasn’t for some Faith Ekakitie pixie dust, Wisconsin would be batting a perfect eight for eight this decade against our Hawkeyes. At this point, Albert is damn near a Wisconsin resident.

The one-sided Wisconsin series, more than any other rivalry, should prompt Ferentz and company to revisit their offensive philosophy. KF’s offensive philosophy is premised on a ball control, don’t-make-mistakes identity. As we know all too well, he is content to rely on a typically stout defense and standout special teams play to escape with, say, a 10-6 victory. And there have been enough one-off performances against elite teams to keep Hawkeyes fans coming back for more (and for Gary Barta to keep cutting them checks). The 14-13 upset victory against Michigan is probably the tentpole for Kirk’s offensive formula: rely on a rugged defense, solid special teams, and a couple of fortuitous bounces for a program-defining win. But year in and year out, Iowa’s offense sputters against elite competition, culminating in our annual early November departure from Big Ten contention. And Wisconsin, more than any other program, is the one kicking the Hawkeyes to the Big Ten curb.

When KF first ascended to Hawkeye headman in 1999, the ball control, don’t-make-mistakes, and control time of possession formula was a viable offensive strategy. But over the past twenty years, there has been a legitimate offensive explosion. This Fanside article corroborates the scoring uptick. In 1999, the mean point per game was 25.7; in 2019, the mean point per game is 30.7. And compared to 1999, yards per game is up 9 percent; yards per running play is up 15.1 percent, and yards per pass attempt is up 6.2 percent. In order to win in the playoff era, you need a dynamic offense -- an offense that threatens on every possession. KF’s tried and true formula (see above) needs a modernization or, at the very least, a fresh coat of paint. 

We have witnessed some of college football’s most hallowed program embrace college football’s offensive revolution--grudgingly at first but now full throttle. LSU and Alabama are the two more prominent examples. For years, LSU’s offense languished under the Mad Hatter. Who can forget the Super Soaker fight between offensively inept Iowa and LSU in the 2014 Outback Bowl? It was a three hour infomercial, or plea, for better offense. In part because of the Mad Hatter’s stubborn refusal to modernize his offense, LSU took the Coach O plunge and, so far, has been richly rewarded (see: last Saturday's first victory over Bama in close to a decade). Nick Saban on LSU’s offensive reboot: “We’ve become more of a spread team, they’ve become more of a spread team. We’ve done it for a few years now, this is their first opportunity to really open things up, and it’s paid tremendous dividends.”

Speaking of Saban, Bama has also embraced a modern offensive approach. An old school coach of KF’s ilk, Saban once decried up-tempo offenses with a “Is this what we want football to be?” putdown. Saban, in time, evolved and has transformed Alabama into an offensive juggernaut. The Tide averaged two touchdowns (!!) more in 2019 than 2009 -- a cool 47.7 points to 32.1 points in 2009. Saban on Bama’s offensive evolution: “It’s an indication that when you put these skill players in open positions how much more difficult it is to defend the space whether it’s vertical or horizontal on the field. You make it more difficult for the defense because they have to make a lot of plays in space. I think that’s the way the game is going now, and if you look at some of the most successful teams offensively they’re pretty much all playing that way. It’s much more difficult to make explosive plays just running the ball.”

Considering this is an Iowa blog, you might be questioning the relevance of LSU and Bama. Here’s the relevance: LSU and Bama have been two of college football’s most dominant programs over the past decade plus. Even without an offensive upgrade, both programs would have maintained their status within college football’s upper echelon. But both programs -- which have enjoyed significantly more success than Iowa over the past decade plus -- recognized the need for an offensive overhaul. They realized that their rigid adherence to a ball control, limit turnovers, field position template placed them at a competitive disadvantage. As Saban concedes, “You have to empower your offense to win shootouts occasionally.” And under Saban and now Coach O, that's meant run-pass options, operating out of the shotgun, spreading teams out, and generally exploiting every possible advantage.

This brings us to an examination -- and critique -- of Iowa’s offense, which is a direct reflection of Kirk’s ball control, risk averse preference. In Iowa’s four biggest games this year (Iowa State, Michigan, Penn State, and Wisconsin), Iowa has averaged 13.75 points. It is a testament to Iowa’s defense (and Phil Parker’s prowess) that Iowa has even been competitive while averaging 13.75 points per game. But because of Phil’s defensive ingenuity (and before that, Norm’s regular master classes in de-fanging offenses), Kirk entrusts his defense to hang around and, with a couple of lucky bounces, squeak out an improbable win over a highly ranked foe.

But as we have seen this year and last year and the year before that, this style of play against better foes is not sustainable. Carrying an unfathomable burden, Iowa’s defense wears down (Penn State/Wisconsin) and/or gives up one big play (Michigan). And Iowa, now facing a 10-0 or 17-6 or 21-6 hole, is too offensively challenged to mount a realistic comeback. Against Penn State and Wisconsin, I mentally checked out as soon as Iowa fell behind by two scores. And while Iowa showed admirable fight in both games, did you really think the Hawks had enough offensive chops to win? You already know my answer. 

I suspect KF views up-tempo offense or RPOs as gimmicky -- an affront to “real football.” But whether or not KF wants to acknowledge college football’s evolution, scoring has supplanted defense in the playoff era. And as Saban -- again, one of KF’s contemporaries - -says about the offensive revolution, "I might not like it, but it ain't the way ball is now. ...But hey, it's on me -- regardless of the way I think football should be played -- if I don't change with it."

So, KF, the onus is on you to change -- to modernize the Iowa offense to complement our consistently stellar defense and solid special teams play. And, sure, you don’t have to go all Mike Leach with the offensive pyrotechnics (although I wouldn’t mind) but your program needs to treat offense as more than a convenient placeholder for Phil’s reliable defense. If not, Albert’s visits will become even more occasional -- if at all. 

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