I know what you're thinking: Not another "Iowa is really going to overhaul the offense post" from these guys. And you might well be right. In eighteen years with two offensive coordinators, nobody has been able to convince Kirk Ferentz to change a thing about his offense. The few glimmers of hope we've had in the past -- that brief dalliance with the no-huddle in September 2011, the three-tight-end package against Ohio State in 2013 -- have been fleeting, and have been replaced by Ferentz's old standards at the first sign of failure.
Perhaps the skeptics are correct. Certainly Ferentz won't give up his beloved zone running scheme, and the return of Ken O'Keefe virtually guarantees the triumphant return of the play action pass as a key component of the playbook. The first play run against Wyoming this Saturday will absolutely be one of these: An outside zone, likely run to the boundary side of the field so that Iowa's offensive line can put the defense in a phone booth and topple the phone booth over, or a play action bootleg run off of outside zone to the boundary and thrown to a leaking tight end in the flat. This is what Kirk Ferentz does, and no matter what happens in the world around him, this is what Kirk Ferentz will do until the end of the Kirk Ferentz era.
But two developments, and one change in motivation, could signal that Ferentz is at least willing to consider some changes to his beloved offense. The first: Ferentz handed control of the running game to his son, now-offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, two seasons ago. What followed from Brian's appointment as run game coordinator was the greatest diversity in the running game since Hayden Fry left town. No longer was Iowa a team with two running plays, inside and outside zone, and an occasional poorly-planned counter.
"Confuse and Clobber"
Under Brian Ferentz, Iowa set traps for opposing defenses, not just the formal old-school trap play but legitimate traps meant to catch a linebacker or a Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in a bad position so that he could be eliminated, either by force or stealth. Iowa's run diversity -- and the end of the annual panoply of running back problems commonly known as AIRBHG -- made 2015 and 2016 the most successful years in Iowa's running game since Shonn Greene left town in 2008.
It's what Ian Boyd at Football Study Hall calls "Confuse and Clobber," the first true counter to spread offenses in the last 15 years. The concept is relatively simple: Use the same market inefficiencies that programs like, say, 1990s Nebraska used to identify and recruit players not particularly liked by spread teams (say, for instance, blocking tight ends and fullbacks):
It used to be that when people thought about prototypical football players they thought of guys like running backs and fullbacks. Elite, physical runners and big, burly blockers who lived for the contact of the game. But nowadays the game is increasingly dominated by QBs that can process and make decisions under fire and then deliver the ball down the field through the air to receivers who are processing and making decisions on the fly.
It’s not too terribly difficult for a program like Appalachian State or NC State to load up with multiple solid running backs, nor to find blocking fullbacks and tight ends. It’s even possible to find really good ones because they no longer have as much value at the bigger universities that are only looking for TEs that can run routes.
What gets done with all of those blockers and running backs varies from team to team. Some teams get multiple halfbacks on the field, lining them up side-by-side next to the quarterback in a shotgun formation or sending one (or even two) to the slot receiver positions. From there, it's football as old as the single wing: Use multiple potential runners to confuse the defense with pre-snap motion and play action, and by the time the defense figures it out, there's a 320-pound interior lineman up in the safety's grill.
Before you say "there is no way Ferentz will do this," remember that he's done it before. Three years ago, Iowa tried to incorporate the jet sweep into the offense. However, it fell victim to the same problem that cratered so many other Greg Davis ideas, because Iowa ran it out of a single personnel set (one featuring Jonathan Parker) and formation. As soon as Parker went in the game, everyone in the stadium knew that the next play was either going to be a Parker end around or a Parker fake end around to keep the defense from crashing a Mark Weisman outside zone. And soon it was scrapped, like all of those other one-off ideas.
The "we can only give the ball to Jonathan Parker" problem is no longer a problem. Iowa's offensive coaches have been signaling (1) that Akrum Wadley is going to spend some time in the slot this year, and (2) that Wadley and James Butler will be on the field at the same time ever since August camp opened. If Iowa does this right -- if having Wadley and Butler in the same huddle doesn't automatically notify the defense that Iowa is playing from a two-play playbook -- the possibilities for deception and destruction are endless.
But how does Iowa, a steadfast one-back team for the last 30 years, properly incorporate a bunch of Wing T trickeration into its standard playcalling? How do we avoid the same mistakes of 2014, with the head coach and then-offensive line coach now running the whole show?
Enter Tim Polasek
Last night, I did something I never thought I'd do again: I rewatched Iowa-NDSU from last September. And what Polasek, then the NDSU offensive coordinator, did in that game was a textbook for how Iowa could effectively use its cornucopia of halfbacks to its advantage. Polasek's offense that day was not particularly complicated, except for one aspect: Misdirection. NDSU showed the jet sweep/end around early, and kept going to it to maintain its legitimacy, even though Iowa defended it well all game. The Bison used multiple backs in multiple formations, running and passing out of them all to keep Iowa from cheating. And as foreign as those concepts seem to a fan of a team that ran the Kirk Ferentz/Greg Davis Frankenstein for the last five years, that's basic football.
The biggest misdirection that Saturday, though, did not come from the formation or the skill positions. Over and over, NDSU pulled interior linemen to spots where an interior linemen generally isn't pulled, specifically spots where the halfback wasn't running. A guard would kick outside the tackle and block an outside linebacker or defensive end, all while the fullback and tackle blocked the guard's spot and opened a hole where he once was. The effect was as basic as it was cunning. Iowa linebackers followed the pulling lineman as a traditional run key, which pulled them out of position when the ballcarrier went elsewhere. Look at this play from the second quarter, in which NDSU effectively ran an offensive line stunt, with both guards pulling one spot left behind the left tackle and center, taking both Iowa inside linebackers with them only for the running back to run right of the center.
This was modestly effective through roughly halftime, but Iowa's linebackers were slowly figuring out the conceit.
When Iowa stopped chasing NDSU's pulling linemen, Polasek flipped the offense on its head. Now Iowa linebackers were either hesitating for a step or flat-out ignoring those guards and centers, so Polasek sent his running backs behind the pulling linemen. And Lord have mercy, it was destructive. The second half was a blur of NDSU linemen and fullbacks isolating and murdering out-of-position Iowa linebackers to open gaping holes in the line, nearly all paired with a jet sweep action to keep an outside linebacker or safety off-balance.
And then Polasek added the coup de grace, a play action game deployed flawlessly.
That play was set up by eight runs before it, all from that two-halfback shotgun formation with receivers motioning toward the line and crashing into linebackers and safeties after the snap. It was a killer fake, one of the best I've ever seen.
Polasek, of course, is now coaching the offensive line at Iowa. Culturally, he's clearly a match with the program, and he's already paid dividends in recruiting the burly offensive linemen and tight ends from Wisconsin and Minnesota that Iowa desires. But Polasek's style isn't outside zone. He really isn't zone at all. Iowa has incorporated pulling linemen into its zone game in recent years, but you don't hire Tim Polasek to teach zone blocking (you hire a Ferentz to do that, and we've hired two). You hire Polasek because you want to confuse and clobber, because he confused and clobbered you last year and is the only guy on this staff to call a play in the last five seasons. I don't see Polasek leaving NDSU just to coach an offensive scheme he hasn't actively used at the foot of Kirk Ferentz. I think that hire signaled something more: The next evolution of Brian Ferentz's shakeup of the Iowa offense is going to look a lot like what we saw from Polasek's squad last year.
The Brass Ring
All of that is well and good, but as we know, it still has to pass muster with Kirk Ferentz, the guy who threw out all of those past innovations at the first sign of failure for the security blanket of his pro-style scheme. And in past years, we would expect more of the same, the semi-sabotage of that 2011 Penn State gameplan or the simple return to that offense we use against Purdue for a game against Purdue in 2013.
The thing is, though, that those past rejections by Ferentz came when his primary goal was to continue his employment with Iowa. Yes, wins would help with that goal, but Ferentz was secure enough at those points that he didn't need to extend beyond his antiquated preconceived notions of how an offense is supposed to operate.
Ferentz's motivation has changed from his own employment status (which is solidified with last year's ten-season extension) to that of his son. Speculation holds that Kirk Ferentz has three to five years left at the helm, and would obviously like to hand his program over to his son (he didn't even interview anyone else for offensive coordinator, according to Morehouse). An annual slog toward a bottom-half finish in conference offense isn't going to get that done, and both Ferentzes have to know that going into 2017, where the first impression of Brian Ferentz could mean everything. We finally have a young, hungry coaching staff with experience in how to improve on Iowa's offense, an offensive coordinator with incentive to shake things up and a head coach who could finally get out of the way and let it happen.