Iowa coach hoping team can return to glory days

  • Article by: MARK EMMERT SPECIAL TO THE STAR TRIBUNE
  • Updated: September 27, 2013 - 11:35 AM

 

The Iowa football team is weary of the sniping. Detractors write off the Hawkeyes as bland and slow, question their coach’s salary and daring, and wonder whether Iowa City is still a viable road to the NFL.

The Orange Bowl winner and seventh-ranked team in the nation just four seasons ago, Iowa opened itself to skepticism with three lackluster campaigns that followed.

But enough was enough. As the Hawkeyes broke the huddle during a throttling of rival Iowa State two weeks ago, they were dismayed to hear Bon Jovi blaring from the loudspeakers at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames. They instructed the referees to put a stop to it so they could quietly continue running the ball through the Cyclones’ overmatched defense.

The message: Maybe the sport is changing and faster and louder is all the rage. But Iowa is not afraid to be the crotchety next-door neighbor who makes you conform to his way of doing things.

Could Iowa football be both stubborn and reborn?

“They finally have an offensive identity. They didn’t have that last year,” said Chuck Long, former Hawkeyes quarterback and current Big Ten Network analyst. “They’re playing to the players’ strengths a lot better. They’re going to run the football, and they’re going to stop the run.

“I think they went into this season getting back to what [coach] Kirk Ferentz has always been about.”

The Hawkeyes are 3-1, with a rugged tailback churning up yards behind a proficient offensive line and a trio of veteran linebackers who are spearheading a strong defense. But the Big Ten schedule begins Saturday against an equally motivated and undefeated Gophers team.

That’s when we will start to find out if the Hawkeyes are ready to become what they used to be.

Retracing the steps

Joe Chmelka believes he can pinpoint when Iowa’s malaise began. The avid fan was in the stands at Kinnick Stadium on Oct. 23, 2010, when Wisconsin sent its punt unit onto the field at its 26-yard-line, trailing 30-24 with less than 6 minutes to play.

“Everyone could see what was coming. We all stood up and screamed it,” Chmelka said. “We [the Hawkeyes] just weren’t ready for it.”

“It” was a fake punt that resulted in a 17-yard gain and, eventually, led to the Badgers’ winning touchdown. The Hawkeyes, following that 11-2 Orange Bowl-winning season, were 5-1 entering the Wisconsin game and ranked 13th in the nation. They went 14-18 from that moment until the end of a 2012 season that ended with a 4-8 record, including six consecutive losses to conclude Big Ten play.

The Hawkeyes seemed to have every answer while going 4-1 in games decided by three or fewer points in 2009. They have been 3-10 in such contests since, including a season-opening 30-27 loss at home to Northern Illinois this year. Most galling to Hawkeyes fans is that two of those close losses were to Iowa State and two more to the Gophers, rivals they feel they should routinely beat, and once did.

Fans have seen a slew of highly touted ball­carriers succumb to injury (eight since 2010), quit the program, or run afoul of the law and either be dismissed from the team or decide to transfer. It became the subject of dark humor in Iowa, but for an offense that relies on a strong running game and a team that typically lacks explosive playmakers, it was no laughing matter.

“They’ve really never had a burner outside to stretch the field,” said Howard Griffith, another BTN analyst. “Iowa’s niche has been — and will continue to be — to get good players in and develop them within a system. They’re not getting the elite players, so it puts a greater burden on the coaches. And then when you have all those injuries? That’s a real problem.”

Ferentz looks for answers

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