Brian Ferentz Pulls Back the Curtain on Oz

By Patrick Vint on April 24, 2019 at 8:11 am
HIGH FIVES!

© Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

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We're going to break down Coordinator Presser Day into separate posts today, as there was enough information to justify it.  Let's start with Brian Ferentz, finally and unequivocally, giving up the ghost:

Whether he meant to or not, Brian Ferentz perfectly and simply peeled back the curtain Tuesday about how the Iowa football program approaches moving the football.

You see, It's not always about ... moving the football.

Leistikow provides the money quote:

“We need to protect our defense and keep them out of bad positions. That means we need to protect the football. We need to change field position,” Ferentz said. “And we need to score as many points as we can with the opportunities we have.”

Ferentz elaborated further:

It was very important for us in the Bowl game to keep our defense fresh and to keep them off the field as much as possible. So even though there were some things that were probably not the most effective things in the game, it was irrelevant because we needed to make sure that we kept the clock moving and we possessed the ball as much as possible. Gave us our best chance to win.

And there you have it, confirmation of what anyone seriously watching Iowa football over the last fifteen years has already known: That Iowa's offense is not primarily there to score points.  Ferentz emphasized that the offense's responsibility primarily is to "run the ball," which is the tactic that leads to the philosophical goal of shortening the game, limiting negative variance and extending the field for the defense.  I feel like I've seen this explanation somewhere before.

But casting consistently crappy offensive production as a philosophical good is some Jedi stuff from the younger Ferentz, and it apparently worked:

As Hawkeye Nation's Jon Miller points out in response to that tweet, Iowa was 44th nationally (and fourth in the Big Ten) in points per possession last season, which isn't horrible, though far from championship level, production.

At the risk of oversimplifying the point, Brian is saying that the goal of Iowa's entire gameplan is to make the field long for opposing offenses, thereby driving down the opponent's scoring opportunities, and then grabbing some points where the field is short or Iowa finds an opportunity to exploit.  That philosophy worked flawlessly last year: Iowa was third nationally in average field position last season; its opponents were 22nd worst.  That gave Iowa nine yards of implied benefit on every change of possession; over the course of a regular game, that might be 100 yards of free yardage.  Among Big Ten teams, nobody had a bigger spread between average starting field position than Iowa and its opponents.  Brian Ferentz's offense did a decent job of cashing in on short fields, with yards per point 13th lowest nationally.  That led to that modestly successful 44th national ranking in points per possession.

The problem is, of course, that in a season where everything went right for Iowa philosophically, Ferentz's team still ended up 44th in points per possession and 9-4 overall, 5-4 in the Big Ten.  In fact, if you look back at historical data, field position might not have all that much to do with whether Iowa is successful or not.  The 2015 and 2009 teams, the two most successful squads of the last 15 years, were both around +3 yards per change of possession; the 2012 team, the one true clunker in that time period, was +2.  On the surface, field position obviously matters.  But in aggregate, it doesn't appear as if field position has that much to do with whether Iowa actually wins a bunch of football games.

Which leads us to the more interesting question from Tuesday's presser: How do you keep the outside zone as a viable base play when defenses with multiple fronts make it more difficult to execute?

We acknowledge that crashing linebackers and slanting defensive fronts have made it increasingly difficult for us to run outside zone as our near-exclusive running play for almost a decade.  Because of that, we've added twenty new running plays this spring.  I mean, after all, I hired the former offensive coordinator for North Dakota State onto our staff.  They ran on us for about a billion yards when he was there, and we could probably use his knowledge to make us better at our one philosophical goal of running the ball effectively.

I'm just kidding.  A Ferentz would never say that.  Here's what he actually said:

But when it comes to running the outside zone play, I think it’s a lot more about your execution and how your players respond to what happens and the better we understand the play conceptually and what we are trying to do, the better decisions we’re going to make on the field on the fly, whether it’s 15 years ago when you are seeing maybe just one or two fronts per game or now when you can see a whole mixture of those — ultimately offensive football is very similar to defensive football. We are trying to control gaps and we are trying to cancel them offensively. It’s just how do you it within whichever scheme.

On the outside play in particular, you certainly need to be cognizant to not over running things.

Iowa responding to an evolution of the game by doing the same thing, only cleaner, is just what we expect anymore.

This all goes back to the basic tenet of "that's football."  Iowa is philosophically committed to the running game, as it should be given the number of offensive linemen the state produces and the history of its staff.  In 2015 and 2016, when Iowa's running game was at its post-Greene peak, Brian Ferentz had convinced his dad to run a variety of running plays in addition to outside zone.  That variety kept defenses honest, which allowed for all running plays, outside zone or not, to be run more effectively.  Iowa was 60th nationally in 2016 and TENTH in 2015.  Not even Shonn Greene got Iowa to tenth nationally in yards per rushing attempt.

But when Brian left his "run game coordinator" role and moved into the offensive coordinator chair two years ago, Iowa's near-exclusive reliance on the outside zone returned.  Akrum Wadley bent spoons in 2017, and Iowa still finished 102nd nationally in yards per rushing attempt.  Last year, Iowa finished 96th nationally.  In both years, Iowa was tenth in the Big Ten in yards per attempt.

And so we return to the same question we were asking five years ago: Is Iowa's offensive philosophy to run the ball, as Brian said Tuesday?  Or is it to run the stretch zone and build off that single play, as it has increasingly done over the last two years?  Those things aren't mutually exclusive in a world where the outside zone hasn't been gameplanned into irrelevancy, but the numbers don't lie, and relying on amorphous "execution" to work around the obvious schematic issue is ignoring the obvious: That a diverse and multifaceted running game has worked better, and almost surely would work better, than what we currently have. 

Why wouldn't Iowa accept the obvious solution?  Because we're not a program built on running the ball.  We're a program built on running the stretch.  And so it's once more unto the breach at 3.6 yards per carry.  And so we get this:

Football is football. There’s a lot of carry over. The plays don’t change and I know that’s not the popular answer. Wish I could sit here and tell you they changed. It would be just maybe I’m not changing, I don’t know, but I don’t think the plays change significantly.

I mean, I just...I...[walks away muttering to nobody]

 Other nuggets from Tuesday:

  • Drew Cook got mentioned as "a guy that's made a lot of progress" on a suddenly bare tight end depth chart, and you can hear the hearts of 80s Hawkeye fans going pitter-patter from here.
  • This little bit from an already-crowded running back corps: "And then, you know, the young guy Shadrick Byrd who showed up at semester has taken a lot of reps and done a lot of really good things with the opportunities he’s had. We’re impressed there."
  • Ferentz expects a reduction in two tight-end sets this year, for obvious reasons.  We'll probably see more three-receiver sets due to the emergence of The Velvet Underground & Nico (Ed. note: I'm calling Tyrone Tracy "The Velvet Underground" now).
  • Tyler Linderbaum is probably your starting center come September.  Learn how to spell that name.
  • Ferentz gave a long answer on the need for "adjustors," players who can be sent in motion to another position in order to change or take advantage of defensive matchups.  Last year, the tight ends were the obvious selections.  This year, it's more likely halfback (although he mentions Shaun Beyer as a potential wide-split tight end).
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