We've long since stopped paying that much attention to weekly football press conferences. Over the last 12 years, Kirk Ferentz has refined his media ninja skills to third degree black belt status. Any discussion of the Tuesday depth chart is basically unnecessary, as that depth chart is ditched by Thursday afternoon. Basically, we get an updated injury report, Ferentz speaking in haiku and making his backhand karate chop hand gesture, and 26 different uses of the word 'execute'.
The exception is the bye week, because the bye week brings a very special treat: A round of questions with Ken O'Keefe and Norm Parker. Yesterday was no exception; in fact, it was especially insightful. Iowa's schematic revolution has replaced Ken O'Keefe's usual pro-style zone run-based offense with a pass-happy four-wide shotgun and FOUR THREE COVER TWO with...well, mostly still 4-3 cover 2, but at least there's some situational 3-4 and more blitzing than we usually see. Here's what we learned.
No-huddle offenses don't kill defenses. Rules about no-huddle offenses kill defenses. It's long been documented that the no-huddle spread is anathema to Parker's defenses. Repeated failure to stop Northwestern, difficulties against Rodriguez-era Michigan offenses, and Parker's own "the spread should be outlawed" statements are proof enough. But when asked about his teams' difficulties with the no-huddle, Parker had an astute observation:
The hardest thing about the no-huddle offense is in pro football, if you have one group of personnel in the game and you put in another group, you must give the defense time to change personnel. In other words, you can't go from a bunch of receivers to a bunch of tight ends without allowing the defense to change. In college football, you don't have to give the defense time to change.
So that's what's really happening. It's all of these different personnel groups. They are coming in from the sidelines, but by the time you figure out who is in there, you get stuck with the same guys on the field -- there's never been a rule that's been made for the defense. Really, defensive coaches sort of think it's not fair. Like pro football, you have to give them time to get their guys in the game.
Norm really wants you to know that, in pro football, he would have time to get a new defense into the game when the offense changes personnel. But repeated protestations aside, it makes all the sense in the world. Offensive coordinators go no-huddle with a script and defenses are left on their heels. It was even used by Iowa, who came out in a single back set with a tight end on the first play from scrimmage against Louisiana-Monroe, then went seamlessly into a five-wide shotgun without letting ULM change personnel.
The Iowa Nickel Package. Two years ago, Iowa had some versatility on the defensive front and depth at linebacker. Tackle Christian Ballard had experience at end from the year before, ends Adrian Clayborn and Broderick Binns were effective pass rushers without the need for blocker-inhaling interior defenders, and backup linebacker Jeff Tarpinian was a former safety and especially effective pass defender. In that season's Iowa State game, Iowa used these qualities to confuse Austen Arnaud with a 3-4 formation in passing situations. It worked brilliantly.
Last week, Iowa again went to a 3-4 in select passing situations. As HEC showed on Tuesday, it was again effective. Parker explained why it's necessary:
Everybody in the world is using all of these passing routes for running people off and dragging the guy underneath. Everybody does that. So what you're doing is you just have another linebacker that when they run guys off -- you have somebody to pick up those shells, and that's what we try to do.
It turns out the 3-4 is not a split of the interior cover 2 zone as we previously thought as much as a mechanism for overlapping zones to combat floods and the drag/wheel route shenanigans that plagued the Iowa defense against Pitt and Iowa State. That it came after those two pass coverage debacles makes as much sense as the tactics behind it.
So THAT'S where Jordan Bernstine's been. Jordan Bernstine showed up for this, his fifth season at Iowa, and started crushing fools over the middle. While he may have started the opening weekend as a second-string safety, he didn't stay there long. After missing the Iowa State game with an illness and being as conspicuous in absence as any player in recent memory, Bernstine returned against Pitt and established himself as Iowa's enforcer.
We're finally seeing the Bernstine we expected years ago, but the question was why it took so long. Today, Norm Parker gave us some insight.
When he came back, and he's done an incredible job of turning his attention and his zest for the game around, and he's really become, from being a very insignificant leader to maybe the leader of the defense. The guy has done a heck of a job just if you took an individual story. He's really, really done a great job being a leader. He's a smart guy. He always was, you know, the people you saw asking the question, "Where's Bernstine? Where's Bernstine?" and he always was that guy: could have been, should have been, never was. Then all of a sudden, like sort of a light switch, turn it on, and he's really done well for himself and well for the team, and it's a good story. He's really done well.
The switch flipped, the focus and excitement returned, the leadership qualities surfaced. Simple as that. Sure, we've been waiting for Bernstine for a while. We're just happy to have him now.
And playing Peyton Manning for tonight's performance, James Vandenberg. Kirk Ferentz joked earlier in the press conference that Iowa is going "100% no huddle on offense and 50% blitzing on defense" and spending the rest of the bye week playing golf. So no, the Hawkeyes won't completely change their stripes, but there's no doubt Iowa's offense has been more effective in multiple-wideout shotgun sets and from the no-huddle. The question came for KOK: Now that the no-huddle is a part of the regular offense, who calls the plays?
Pure two-minute, no-huddle situation, he has a lot of freedom, an enormous amount of freedom. He knows the packages that we use. He knows the protections we need to be in. He knows the routes, the various coverages that he might be seeing, and it's a lot easier for him out there once he starts seeing it to make adjustments than it is to actually even make it from the sideline. He has enormous freedom there.
It's interesting to note that KOK distinguishes a "pure" two-minute no-huddle here, at least implying that there is a second no-huddle package, likely based on sideline playcalls. The bigger story, though, is that Vandenberg has the knowledge, the capability, and the confidence to run the entire offense without the coaches' assistance after just seven starts. There has been a lot of premature Vandenberg vs. Stanzi discussion this season, but there's no way Stanzi had this sort of autonomy after seven games. The jury is still out on that general question, but Vandenberg appears to be further along than his predecessor was at the same stage.
No-huddle, part deux. Like every other coach who has ever run a no-huddle offense, O'Keefe says it's all about tempo. But while most coordinators use the high tempo to exhaust opposing defenses, KOK explains the higher tempo (and the shotgun formation) is more for his quarterback's comfort:
We kind of liked the tempo. Felt comfortable with the tempo and thought we would come out and take it from there. We had a really -- because of their defense, we probably went into that game with the most simple game plan we have had in a long time in a lot of ways. Because it's too hard to prepare too many personnel groups and formation groups against some of the stuff that they were doing, so we just decided to simplify it and let James go to work, and it worked out okay....
[Vandenberg is] pretty comfortable obviously in the gun to say the least, and I think either way, he does a good job with the speed. He's always in balance for the most part, and getting the ball near guys, at least they have a chance to go make aplay, which is the most important thing that you've got to have I think.
The Pitt game might be the most important game Iowa's played in two years. Not only did it restore confidence in a team that was desperately lacking it, but it convinced Ferentz and O'Keefe to play to the strengths of their quarterback and trust a group of wideouts they had doubted in August. The results -- at least we hope -- are a robust and variable offense the likes of which Iowa hasn't fielded in nearly a decade, built around the strengths and preferences of its quarterback.
Process Stories. I always enjoy questions on how the team prepares for games and adjusts during games, mostly because it gives key insight into the thought process leading to Iowa's sometimes-inexplicable decisionmaking. That's why I loved this question:
Q. People don't realize, I don't think, how much when a quarterback comes off the field, and wide receivers, when you ask them, "What do you see?" how much that triggers things for you. Can you give us an idea of how much it does set the pace for you guys in what you guys do?
COACH O'KEEFE: Usually they comeback, they will go to their little area, the bench, and as a staff, we'll talk about some things while the kickoff team or punt team or whatever it is is out there. And then I'll get with the quarterbacks and just run back through the charted plays that we just finished running. We'll talk about each of those plays, good, bad, indifferent, things we could have done differently. Things we saw, whatever. So it's a mutual effort, because those are your eyes. You know, just like I'm seeing all this right here, he's seeing it the same way. Where, a little tougher to see from over there; a little tougher to see from over there where Steve is. He's seeing everything and what I found over the years is, what he's seeing is almost always right. If he's not seeing it right, probably shouldn't be the guy behind the center. But that's normally how it's going and that's what he's doing. That's what allows him to make good decisions.
Basically, O'Keefe admits he can't see much from the sideline (Parker coaches from the press box now, but until he lost his leg, every Iowa coordinator was sideline-based) and relies on his quarterback. If the quarterback can't tell him what he's seeing and work to adjust, he won't be quarterback for long. It could be why James Vandenberg is the #1 quarterback and John Wienke is holding kicks.