How Hawkeyes Have Rebounded Nicely from Forgettable Finish in ’14
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa has won 47 football games since 2015, the most in any five-year period in program history.
That includes victories in the last three bowl games, a Big Ten West Division title and a last-minute loss to Michigan State in the 2015 Big Ten title game that kept the Hawkeyes out of the College Football Playoff.
Iowa football is in a positive place right now as Kirk Ferentz strides into his 22nd season as head coach. Recruiting is clicking along in high gear, a unified coaching staff is on the same page and enough depth has been developed to overcome nine players leaving early for the NFL Draft the past three seasons.
To appreciate where this program has gone over the past five seasons, I could point out that Iowa won total of 45 games in the 16 seasons before Hayden Fry started to scratch where it itched.
But that’s the easy way out.
Instead, I go back to a defining press conference on Jan. 2, 2015, after a disastrous 42-28 loss to Tennessee at the TaxSlayer Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla. The Volunteers jumped out to a 28-0 lead that grew to 42-7 with a quarter to play.
It was a loss that dropped Iowa’s record to 26-25 since a victory over Missouri at the 2010 Insight Bowl. The Hawkeyes hadn’t made an appearance in the Associated Press poll since late in that 2010 season.
Iowa finished with a 7-6 record after the humiliation against Tennessee. It was a season that didn’t live up to expectations. A season that Athletic Director Gary Barta had labeled not acceptable. And that was before the bowl game.
The heat was on Ferentz, whose usual stoic and calm demeanor after a game cracked late that season and again late that afternoon in Jacksonville.
Asked about the temperature outside the program at a testy press conference, Ferentz said, “Single digits in Iowa. Do you want to be more specific than that? I’m serious.”
To those who were in the room, this felt like a pivotal point in Iowa football history. And to Ferentz’s credit, he got things headed in a positive direction again.
The road back started on Jan. 14, 2015, at a Ferentz press conference at the new football operations center.
Saying “my sense is that we needed to talk,” Ferentz spent the next 37 minutes sharing his blueprint for reconstruction. Most people have job reviews that remain confidential. Ferentz’s was open to the public.
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“What’s important is to make sure we cover the territory we need to cover, to come up with a good plan, and again, not just change things to change things,” Ferentz said. “I think that’s really a waste of time and effort. But the big thing is to really look and find out what we need to tinker with and what we need to adjust and then go about it in a smart, logical way and make sure we do what is right.”
Coachspeak or introspective breakdown? Time tells us it was the latter.
The changes had actually started before the news conference, when Ferentz named C.J.Beathard the starting quarterback moving forward. He replaced Jake Rudock, who had started 25 of 26 games over the previous two seasons and would end up transferring to Michigan.
Ferentz also looked in the mirror during his program critique. He knew he needed to spend more time in the office. Fundraising for the football operations center had taken precedence. He admitted he need to spend more time watching film, more time interacting with staff and his players, more analysis of teams outside Iowa City.
His to-do list on the field was a long one. It started with improving special teams. Meltdowns against Nebraska and Tennessee in the final two games (and losses) of 2014 had been painful.
Ferentz still shakes his head over the Nebraska game, a 37-34 overtime loss at Kinnick Stadium. Adding fuel to the fire was a backhanded critique of the Iowa program by Nebraska Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst, who fired Coach Bo Pelini despite the win.
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“In the final analysis, I had to evaluate where Iowa was,” Eichorst said.
A better turnover ratio, better production the red zone, improving the run game and the defense against the run, were also mentioned.
Iowa had a negative six turnover margin in 2014, but has been at least plus six every season since (an average of plus 8.8 over the past five seasons).
Hawkeye special teams have improved significantly since LeVar Woods was named coordinator in March of 2017.
Since a red zone percentage of .786 in 2014, Iowa has averaged .850 over the past five seasons, including a .952 mark (40 of 42) last season.
Work remains in creating a consistent running game. Iowa has averaged 139.2, 148.4 and 137.6 yards per game the past three seasons. But rush defense has been stout, especially the past two seasons when the Hawkeyes surrendered just 109.5 and 112.5 yards per game.
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Putting together this coaching staff been a gradual transformation. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker and strength coach Chris Doyle have been there since day one. Woods is in his 13th season. Assistant defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Seth Wallace in his 10th season. Brian Ferentz, who became offensive coordinator before the 2017 season, is in his ninth year.
Kelvin Bell was named recruiting coordinator and defensive assistant coach in February of 2016, then replaced Reese Morgan as defensive line coach before the 2019 season.
Offensive line coach Tim Polasek, wide receivers coach Kelton Copeland, running backs coach and offensive recruiting coordinator Derrick Foster and defensive recruiting coordinator and assistant defensive line coach Jay Niemann have all been added over the past four seasons. And quarterbacks coach Ken O’Keefe, who was Iowa’s offensive coordinator for 13 seasons, returned in 2017 as quarterbacks coach.
Iowa has also gone to morning practices during this five-year retooling project.
Ferentz has made some other changes, too. He was embarrassed when he watched video of his postgame interactions with reporters after the 2014 Nebraska (“that’s football”) and Tennessee postgame press conferences, and made note of it.
And old-school coach at heart, New Kirk became a thing when Iowa tried fake punts in the first two games of the 2015 season. Going for it on fourth down became another thing that had people in the stands buzzing.
But New Kirk was actually Old Kirk, a coach not afraid to take on dversity. Not too stubborn to try different things.
The man on the hot seat after 2014 was named Big Ten coach of the year for the fourth time in 2015. And his team finished the season in the Associated Press Top 10 for the fifth time time under his watch.
Iowa also finished 25th in 2018 and 15th in 2019, and has been ranked 38 weeks over the past five seasons after going zero for the 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 seasons.
Ferentz will never kick his traditional football beliefs to the curb, but that fact that he was willing to tackle mediocrity head on after the 2014 season has Iowa football in a good place.