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

Ferentz, 58, entered his 15th season at Iowa as the dean of Big Ten coaches but with something to prove. His tenure is tied for fourth-longest among major college coaches and includes two conference championships and the Hawkeyes’ first victory in a BCS-level bowl since the 1959 Rose Bowl. His teams went 70-31 from 2002 to 2009.

Athletic director Gary Barta has resolutely stood behind his man — reiterating as much in an interview this week. But Ferentz stands to make $3.9 million this year in a contract that was extended through January 2020 after the Orange Bowl victory. That makes him the highest-paid public employee in Iowa and a target of criticism from some fans.

For his part, Ferentz was noticeably more available to local beat reporters this summer, offering no excuses for the dismal end to last season. The laconic coach is aware that his unflappable demeanor, a no-nonsense approach to his craft and a self-deprecating sense of humor become fodder for critics when victories are scarce.

“The bottom line is this — if you’re successful, if you win enough games, then what you’re doing is pretty good, no matter what your style may be,” Ferentz told reporters at the Big Ten meetings in Chicago in July. “If you’re losing, it ain’t good enough. Your personality, your style, whatever. The color jersey you wear.”

The old standard

Those jerseys will remain the familiar black and gold when Iowa takes the field at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday. The team is essentially built the same way as past Ferentz squads. He has retooled his coaching staff, hiring six new coaches in the past two years — with all three coordinators new to those roles. That matched the total churn on his staff in the previous 13 seasons.

Offensive coordinator Greg Davis, formerly at Texas, came on board last year. And Iowa is intent on playing at a faster pace this season, already eclipsing 80 offensive snaps three times after averaging 67.5 a year ago. But the strength of the team remains the offensive line and linebackers.

Junior tackle Brandon Scherff, a likely high NFL draft pick, anchors an offensive line that has allowed hulking tailback Mark Weisman, a converted walk-on fullback, to gain 468 yards to rank sixth in the nation.

The linebackers — Anthony Hitchens, Christian Kirksey and James Morris — are all sure-tackling seniors. They are the key reasons Iowa ranks 12th in the nation in giving up only 91.5 rushing yards per game.

Morris is from Solon, Iowa, in the heart of Hawkeye country. His father, Greg, is the team’s longtime equipment manager. No one is more eager to restore Iowa to gridiron prominence.

“I just always remember feeling the Hawkeye football team was somehow representing me, my family, my town, just blue-collar people who worked hard,” Morris said. “I just want to have a season I can be proud of. Hopefully, leave the program better than I found it.”

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