If you missed Part I of the Coaching Staff evaluations, click here to read it.
I’d give this staff an ‘A’ in player development, for reasons I stated near the end of the first part of this item.
I’d give this staff a ‘B’ in putting together offensive and defensive philosophies that are the best match for the recruiting battles they are most likely to win. I’d give Norm Parker an ‘A-’on the macro. Were it not for so many Top 20 Iowa defenses through the years, this program would not have tasted the success it has enjoyed.
Once upon a time, I’d have given this staff an ‘A’ grade on special teams, but the second half of the Ferentz era has not been as crisp in this area. Kickoff coverage has been an issue. Iowa was 51st in kickoff yardage defense this year, 50th last year, 82nd in 2008, 107th in 2006 and 48th in 2004. They were 1st in 2005, 10th in 2007 and 8th in 2009. Given those issues, it’s also been disappointing to see so few kickoffs go for touchbacks in recent years.
Iowa has had solid punting for the majority of the Ferentz era which has also led to excellent punt return coverage. They have had decent place kicking with the Nate Kaeding era being the high water mark. However, missed field goals hurt the Hawks this year against Minnesota, where missed PAT conversions hurt Iowa against Arizona and Wisconsin last year just to name some recent instances.
The biggest concern on special teams in recent years has been the frequency where Iowa’s opponents have successfully executed surprise special teams plays. The fake punt against Wisconsin last year. The fake field goal against Michigan State this year. The onside kicks against Minnesota in each of the last two seasons.
Someone suggested on Soundoff following the 2011 Minnesota onside kick that the Iowa coaching staff is taken off guard by plays like this because they would never consider using such gadgetry themselves, therefor they cannot anticipate other coaches being so aggressive.
All this being said, the most consistent ‘underwhelming’ aspect of the Iowa football program in the Kirk Ferentz era has been the production, or lack there of, of the offense.
Take a look at some of these numbers as they correspond with Iowa’s NCAA statistical ranking in each of the categories:
Some of those stats are just ho-hum and some are shockingly poor. Some of them are also ancient history when it comes to today’s college football environment.
Here are two such numbers. Iowa ranked 33rd in the nation in scoring offense in 2008, just three years ago, with 30.31 points per game. In 2011, 30.31 points per game would rank 45th. In 2002, Iowa averaged 37.23 points per game, which was and is the most prolific offense in school history. In 2011, that point total which was the best in Iowa history, would have been 16th best in the nation.
The game is changing and it’s changing rapidly. Scoring 30.0 points in a season doesn’t make you special or dynamic anymore; it just makes you 46th in the nation in scoring offense in the 2011 world of college football.
Another stat to toss out was last season’s 22nd ranking in third down conversions. Over the final four regular season games, Iowa was under 35 percent in converting third downs and they lost three of those four games and probably should have lost the fourth at Indiana.
The 11 year window of those stats is nothing to write home about, considering that a ranking of 58 puts you around the middle of the FBS during that time span.
However, the five-year trend is downright scary, and I don’t mean in an Oregon offense sort of way.
Iowa ranks in the bottom half of every one of those offensive categories I listed. The two most important numbers on this list, at least to me, are scoring offense and rushing offense.
Kirk Ferentz talks about wanting his offense to be balanced and I certainly respect that approach. To gain that balance in this program, the job starts on the ground. If you can’t run the ball given Iowa’s offensive philosophy, you have little chance of being successful anywhere on that statistical spectrum, with one important caveat; you better have a Top 10 scoring defense.
Iowa had that in 2008, 2009 and 2010 and they were 16th in 2004.
The two biggest statistical outliers in this grouping are 2004 and 2009.
The 2004 season remains my favorite season of Iowa football due to the near miracle that was performed. That team should never, ever have won a share of a Big Ten title with those offensive statistics, yet it did. You will not see another season like that as long as you live.
The 2009 season is also a statistical outlier. The 99th best rushing offense? The 86th best scoring offense? 70th in 3rd down conversions? How in the world did that team start 9-0 and win 11 games including an Orange Bowl?
Here is the answer: the 8th best scoring defense, the 11th best takeaway defense and the 4th best passing defense. Iowa’s total defense rank was 10th in the nation, but there wasn’t another defense in college football that had numbers inside the Top 11 in those first three categories I just listed. It was simply one of the three or four best defenses in college football and it was enough to overcome an offense that barely did enough. At times, it didn’t do enough and needed a blocked punt for a touchdown by Adrian Clayborn and a pinball interception return for a touchdown from Tyler Sash to spark victories.
None of this is to say that you can’t score a lot of points and win a lot of games with a pro-style offensive attack; Wisconsin and Stanford averaged 44 and 43 points, respectively, this year with pro-style offenses. Iowa still plays in the Big Ten and the ‘spread fancy’ is already waning a bit and most teams in this league will not be able to sustain success with that style of play at Big Ten latitudes, and certainly not in November.
However, something is missing in this Iowa offense and it has been for a long time and I really can’t say for sure what it is.
This program prides itself on being an offensive line factory, yet the rushing average over the past five years doesn’t suggest that. Then again, when you are running similar sets each week in 2011 that you were running in 2003, opposing defenses might have a tell or two to play off of.
However, it’s unfair to lay the ‘blame’ for lack of better run production numbers solely at the feet of the linemen.
Iowa has featured a running back that is not quick through the hole and can’t hit home runs in many of the Ferentz era years. There have been plenty of games where there were home run holes but the backs were just hitting singles and doubles.
The lack of a back with home run potential will hurt the offensive production numbers and hurts the offense’s ability to score easier which makes everything that much harder.
I love guys like Coker, Adam Robinson and Albert Young, but they are slower to get to and through the LOS, which makes the margin for error smaller along the line. Players have to hold blocks longer, linebackers have a chance to get deeper into the hole to prevent plays from breaking longer, DB’s and LB’s aren’t punished more for being a step out of position, etc.
Iowa needs to add some lightning with its thunder, which will make things easier on everyone.
Look, when the Iowa offense is in a groove, it’s my favorite offense to watch. I am not a spread fanatic and I like the balanced, pro-style attack Iowa has employed. I like it because I think it’s the best offense Iowa can run given the types of players they are most likely going to bring into the program each signing day.
The day someone comes into this program and tries to play a finesse brand of football is the day you should cancel your season ticket order, unless you are just going to Kinnick Stadium for the parties because trouble will be right over the horizon.
This offense works. This philosophy works. The execution is just not there as much as it needs to be. Iowa doesn’t have to be in the Top 25 in each of these categories to have great seasons, but it should be on the good side of 50/50. More often than not, it just seems like Iowa digs itself too many holes.
THIRD DOWN WOES
I believe there is a reason why this program has a harder than usual time getting out of empty plays on first down to later convert on third down and it’s pretty simple; play action won’t work on third and five. Three and four receiving targets running routes into a defense setting up for the pass is going to be unsuccessful more often than it will be successful on third and five or longer.
I would guess a football coach reading this would say that most teams are not good on third and long and I won’t argue that. But I just have this feeling, due to watching six or seven football games per week over the course of the last five or six years, that Iowa would rank near the bottom of those statistics among BCS conference teams.
Iowa did run more four and five wide sets this year than any other year I can recall. However there were far too many instances of 311 personnel (3 receivers, one running back and one tight end) on the field in third and five or longer and teams have been scouting Iowa long enough to take care of that.
Simply put, the Iowa offense seems stale. Or as someone tweeted me following Iowa’s loss at Nebraska, the Iowa offense smells like Aqua Velva.
Here is how Iowa has done on third down conversions (which is where you separate the men from the boys with the execution argument) in November in each of the past five seasons:
2009: 21.62% (this floored me)
So now the question some of you have is simple; who is to blame? Is it Ken O’Keefe? Is it Kirk Ferentz?
As you can see from the data, there is more than enough ‘evidence’ during the Ferentz era to support some sort of change. I am not one of those types who feels people need to be placed on the football altar to appease the masses and I think one of the reasons Iowa has been successful is due to so much continuity on the coaching staff.
Given the years of mediocre to below mediocre offensive production at Iowa and the lack of obvious change, one can only assume that Ferentz is OK with the way things are on offense. I am certain he’d like to see more points and a higher rate of execution, however we have to assume that he is comfortable with the status quo due to the status quo being the standard operating procedure some 13 years later.
Ferentz has often talked of football in simple terms, that it’s still a game where you have to execute. If you do that, you win more than you lose. If you don’t, you get what you deserve.
I don’t disagree with any of that and feel Iowa just needs to make some tweaks in philosophy, not wholesale changes. Yet some things, or some situations, are easier to execute than others. Rolling out 311 personnel all day (career) on third and long can lower your chances of successful execution.
The numbers bear that out. By the time your team gets to November, opponents have seven or eight games of your tape to analyze. They know your trends and tendencies. They know what you are going to roll out on third and five or longer. All too often, Iowa doesn’t do much to disappoint them and has only had one season (2008) among the last five where it could exert its will on the opposition. In that season, Shonn Greene on first and second down was the best cure for the third down ills.
(As an aside, I stick to my belief that the 2008 Iowa team was the most talented of the Ferentz era behind the 2002 Hawkeyes and a much better team than the 11-2 Hawkeyes in 2009.)
The biggest thing that has kept this football program from winning more than it has is an inconsistent offense…or one might say it’s because Ferentz is OK with it. What other conclusions can we draw there? I’d have to say the offense is around the C-/D+ range.
The reality in the Ferentz era has been this; unless Iowa has a Top 20-ish defense nationally, it won’t win more than seven regular season games because the offense cannot carry its own weight and even then, it might not be enough.
I am not fond of those odds.
NEXT UP in our Hawk Talk Series: A recruiting analysis. Why is Iowa having problems keeping defensive linemen in the program? Should Iowa have dipped into the Junior College ranks LAST December? Did they overestimate the talent they had on hand and where has that left this program, one that relies too heavily on steel curtain defensive lines to carry the day, heading into 2012?