CHICAGO – The Iowa Hawkeyes went 11-2 and won the Orange Bowl when James Morris was a senior at Solon (Iowa) High School. As a three-time all-state linebacker, Morris couldn’t wait to taste that same success under Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz.
But in Morris’ three years at Iowa, the Hawkeyes have gone 8-5, 7-6 and 4-8.
“You’re judged by your wins and losses,” Morris said Thursday at Big Ten media days. “You’re not judged by how many hours you put in during the offseason. So to do all those things and not have the results you want puts a bad taste in your mouth.”
Morris said Iowa’s senior class is determined to reverse the downward trend and leave a better legacy. The Hawkeyes loom as a key early test for Minnesota again this year. They will meet in the Big Ten opener for both teams, on Sept. 28 at TCF Bank Stadium.
Last year, the Gophers defeated Syracuse to finish 4-0 in nonconference play, and many expected the winning streak to continue against an Iowa team that had just lost to Central Michigan. But Iowa’s offensive line dominated the Gophers, as the Hawkeyes cruised to a 31-13 victory.
The Hawkeyes defeated Michigan State in overtime the next week, quieting some of the criticism for Ferentz, who has a 10-year, $41 million contract. Then the Hawkeyes lost two offensive linemen to injury and finished with six consecutive losses.
“You say to yourself, ‘Am I a 4-8 person?’ ” Morris said. “No, I don’t feel like I’m a below-average person. I don’t feel like I put forth a below-average effort. We want to have a record we feel matches the work we put in.”
Ferentz left himself open for second-guessing when he let senior quarterback James Vandenberg take every single snap, despite throwing only seven touchdown passes. That left Iowa with no returning experience at quarterback.
Ferentz is quick to note that Brad Banks (in 2002) and Drew Tate (2004) had little to no experience when they took over, and those two teams combined to go 23-4.
Still, the recent fallout hasn’t been pretty. Sports Illustrated’s Stewart Mandel listed Ferentz as one of the five worst coaches in college football. Ferentz showed his usual poise this week, noting how smart everyone seemed to think he was after the Orange Bowl.
For years, Ferentz was surrounded by stability on his coaching staff, but after replacing three assistants following the 2011 season, he replaced three more this past offseason.
Hawkeyes fans seeking hope can start with the offensive line, where tackle Brandon Scherff and Andrew Donnal have returned from leg injuries. Maybe last season would have been different if they had remained healthy.
“Woulda, coulda, shoulda,” senior tackle Brett Van Sloten said. “No excuses. Injuries are part of the game, unfortunately. We need to be more consistent. We can’t come out one game and play well and not the next.”
Ferentz said the quarterback battle is a wide-open race between sophomore Jake Rudock, junior Cody Sokol and freshman C.J. Beathard. Wide receiver is another big question mark, but leading rushers Mark Weisman and Damon Bullock return.
“One good thing is whoever’s playing quarterback has a chance to be better supported than [Vandenberg] was last year,” Ferentz said. “James had a tough road.”
Defensively, the Hawkeyes are led by their linebackers, as Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens — all seniors — have combined for 65 career starts. Teamwide, Morris said, he’s been pleased with how everyone has approached the offseason.
“We haven’t had any guys get in trouble with the law or anything like that,” he said. “Academically, we’ve been good. We’re a character program. We do things right, but we’ve got to translate that to wins.”