Michigan waterboarding our Hawkeyes confirmed something I suspected all along: Iowa’s smoke and mirrors offense has an expiration date.
Before my latest screed, let’s acknowledge that 10-3 is an impressive season, even following last Saturday’s dreary performance. The season was filled with memorable moments: handling a feisty Iowa State team, the frenzied Penn State game, and breaking through and again capturing the Big Ten West.
But after Michigan exposed the Hawkeyes, I think we recognize, now more than ever, Iowa’s limitations. Under la familia Ferentz, Iowa’s ceiling is “pretty good.” Kirk's winning ugly recipe: salty defense, overachieving special teams, and a "less is more" offense dependent on field position and opponent blunders. In other words, a 16-13 Iowa victory is KF’s platonic ideal. Or, in this year’s case, 23-20 and 17-12.
And while Ferentz and company deserve kudos for a 10 win season, let’s stop the fictionalized notion that Iowa plays complementary football. A jumbled mess of zone runs, bubble screens, and naked bootlegs (with a mannequin typically as quarterback), Iowa’s offense is a de facto seat warmer for the Iowa defense. Slight overstatement? Maybe, but you watched the end of the Penn State game and the conclusion of the Minnesota game, right. The offensive play-calling was so tortured, so sphincter-tightening, that you almost wondered why we didn’t punt on first down. The Penn State game was particularly egregious. One first down away from belting out In Heaven There Is No Beer, Iowa dialed up the Petras collapse into a heap play-call on second and third down (mind you, Iowa was already on PSU’s side of the field). It was play-calling capitulation, a window into KF’s “do no harm” offensive philosophy.
Ditto the white knuckle job against the Gophers. Taking over at the Gopher three-yard line, the Hawkeyes’ modus operandi was “don’t fuck anything up.” And despite being three yards away from hoisting Floyd, the Hawkeyes proceeded with a couple of half-baked playcalls before trotting out Caleb Shudak. The approach was as uninspiring as it was predictable. But, once again, it was a window into KF’s football soul; the fear of a turnover supersedes, you know, winning the damn game, even when we are a measly three yards away from breaking bacon with Floyd. And, of course, against our overtaxed defense, Goldy then proceeded to drive into Iowa territory for a potential game winning touchdown.
While Iowa’s defense held on for dear life against the Nittany Lions and Gophers, these games exposed 1) Iowa’s bumbling offense and 2) Ferentz’s “points are optional” offensive philosophy. And, look, this isn’t exactly breaking news for us Hawkeye fans; we are in year 23 of Ferentz and company couching offensive ineptitude as complementary football or situational awareness. But when you have such little faith in your offense, or offensive philosophy, that collapsing into a heap at midfield seems preferable than, you know, running plays for a game-icing first down, we have a problem, Iowa City.
Michigan exposed the Ferentzian limits of Iowa’s “do no harm” offensive mantra. While the Wolverines skipped out to an early lead, the Hawkeyes lost the game in the second quarter. Counting Michigan's end of first quarter turnover, Iowa had the ball for four second quarter possessions. Starting field position: Iowa 33, Iowa 41, Iowa 45, Iowa 20. At least in theory, this is the Ferentzian ideal, relying on the defense to produce short fields and then capitalizing with points. But Iowa’s offense produced a grand total of two first downs (one resulting from a UM unsportsmanlike penalty) during those four possessions. Booming Tory Taylor punts, Phil’s boys short-circuiting Michigan’s offense, and favorable field position can only do so much when offensive ingenuity is shelved because of Ferentz’s 16-13 football ideal, an offensive coordinator handcuffed to a dated offensive philosophy, and an immobile QB staring daggers into his first read. As Iowa squandered its best chance (in fact, four of them) to make this a competitive game, I resigned myself to the fact that pretty good (nine win seasons, winning rivalry trophies) is, indeed, good enough for Kirk and company.
Against Big Ten West dregs, Iowa can mostly get away with its hyper-conservative, stale offensive schemes (case in point: Nebraska has spent the better part of this decade gifting games to our Hawkeyes). “Don’t fuck it up,” along with one or two opportunistic big plays, is a viable offensive philosophy. But for Iowa to ascend to anything more than a backdoor West championship and a brief flirtation with national relevancy, Ferentz’s offensive approach has to evolve. I have fired this type of column into the ethers of the Internet before; on some level, it is almost cathartic to write about, and lament, Iowa’s offensive struggles. But as a self-respecting Hawkeye fan, it is also painful because the story of Hawkeye football is damn near etched in stone at this point: Iowa’s defense and special teams, year in and year out, provide reason to dream of program-defining victories, Big Ten conference titles, and even the college football playoff, only for Ferentz’s staid offensive approach to serve as a Hawkeye glass ceiling.