Hawkeyes win because they're comfortable in their own skin
We are in the golden era of college football scoring, where programs from across the country put up video-game like totals for points and yardage on a regular basis.
Average team scoring eclipsed 30 points per game for the first time ever five years ago and hasn’t looked back since. In 2004, 11 squads at the Div. I level produced over 450 yards per contest. Last season, that number had more than doubled to 25. Point totals have followed a similar trend.
Offenses are more elaborate. Rules are geared toward protecting quarterbacks and rewarding receivers.
A scroll through the numbers will typically find Iowa’s offenses around the middle to bottom of the pack, both in the Big Ten and nationally. The Hawkeyes have never been flashy under head coach Kirk Ferentz; they’re not anemic with the ball, mind you, but Hawkeye fans often grumble about Ferentz’s predictability, affinity for field position and conservative play calling.
Iowa ranked 8th in the league in total offense in 2020. The Hawks were 10th in 2019, 10th in 2018, 10th in 2017…you get the picture. And it’s not like the Big Ten is consistently loaded with offensive juggernauts.
Currently, Ferentz’s squad is fifth from the bottom — small sample size, I know — among the 130 FBS schools in offense. Yet the Hawkeyes are up to fifth nationally, with a 2-0 mark after impressive — scratch that, dominant — victories over Top-20 opponents Indiana and Iowa State.
Twelve of Iowa’s last 14 league seasons have ended with a B1G record over the break-even mark. In fact, since 2008, Iowa is 109-57 overall and 66-42 in the conference during that period of time. Ferentz is a 66-year-old leader who has not only established a new lease on his coaching life, but found ways to make his program more consistent than ever at an age when most coaches have long since lost their edge or faded away.
How is he doing it? Instead of adjusting to the times — trying to find the trendiest way to update his playbook or revolutionize his offensive approach — Ferentz doubled down on his defense. And the Hawkeyes have never been as steady or relentless on that side of the ball, holding 24 consecutive opponents under 25 points. It’s a streak that dates all the way back to November of 2018, ranking as the best and longest in the country.
Like usual, Iowa isn’t necessarily glamorous on the defensive side of the ball. Just fundamentally sound, all but refusing to give up big plays or make mistakes under widely-respected coordinator Phil Parker.
The Hawkeyes’ punting game — typically an even more boring topic of conversation for most fans than defense — is every bit as dangerous of a weapon in this day and age. Tory Taylor is nothing short of remarkable. He ranks sixth in the country for distance, but also has a deft touch in pinning opponents inside their 20- or even 10-yard line. An invaluable asset which, again, isn’t always prioritized by collegiate programs.
Embrace the mundane? Your choice. The Hawks will chug along at times offensively, laboring to pick up first downs while keeping possessions close to the vest. Ferentz doesn’t care about rapid-fire points. He wants to grind opponents down, frustrating skill-position stars and eventually breaking both their spirit and will.
We saw it with Indiana. We saw it with Iowa State. We’ve been seeing it for years.
Former Iowa fullback Brady Ross — an ex-Humboldt all-stater who currently works in the Algona area — said it best during a recent text conversation: “If you can punt well, play defense well and take care of the ball…man, it’s really hard to lose against the vast majority of teams.”
Iowa is the equivalent of a Major League Baseball franchise with a powerful starting rotation, lock-down bullpen and steady infield and outfield play. Sure it may be fun to see home runs and scoring galore, but that type of action is more for June and July entertainment than October playoff advancement.
When push comes to shove, the Hawkeyes won’t wow people or win pretty. At crunch time, though, they know who they are — and are perfectly comfortable being something most programs aren’t.
Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. Contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @ByEricPratt