Iowa fans saw the offense they thought they were going to get Saturday. It was just that the other team was running it.
Back in August, when we were trying to figure out what the offense would look like with a new offensive coordinator from Texas and offensive line coach brought in from the New England Patriots, Ross wrote this:
Of course, Davis isn't the only new face on the offensive coaching staff. There's also that guy who shares Kirk's last name, who just spent the last few years of his life doing his graduate work in coaching theory under some guy named Belichick. Bill Belichick happens to be one of the more innovative minds in all of football and a coach who's incredibly well-versed at reconfiguring his offense to make use of the best tools available (see: last year's New England offense, led by the twin tight end tandem of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez). He also happens to be Ferentz's last boss and one of the men he respects most in the game of football....So, no, I don't expect Iowa's offense to look like a carbon copy of the Patriots' formidable attack and, yes, there's a very real danger of overstating Brian Ferentz's impact on the Iowa offense. That said, it's still an interesting wrinkle to things.
Seven games into the 2012 season, the Hawkeyes are eleventh in the conference and 105th overall in total offense, tenth in the Big Ten and 103rd nationally in scoring offense. The passing offense is generating just 189 yards per game, also 103rd nationally. Despite being immersed in the Greg Davis offense for nearly eight months, the receivers and quarterback both quite clearly have no idea what they're supposed to be doing. James Vandenberg -- widely considered the Big Ten's best returning passer as the season began -- is 117th in the country in pass efficiency*. His completion percentage is identical to Jake Christensen's in 2007. His touchdown to interception ratio is upside down. In the game where he generated his most passing yards this year, Iowa failed to score a touchdown.
This weekend, Iowa played a program that has a new coach -- also from the offensive staff at New England -- with a former walk-on at quarterback running a completely new offensive system. Penn State has no discernible talent advantage over Iowa on offense; the average Rivals star rating of their eleven offensive starters was less than 0.1stars higher than Iowa's, and their quarterback earned a zero-star rating. They were no more experienced than Iowa; in fact, Penn State actually started one more underclassman than the Hawkeyes. Their task this season was more monumental than Iowa's, as they overhauled an entire system with a completely new offensive coaching staff on a lower scholarship limit while losing their best offensive player and a half-dozen other contributors just weeks before the season started. If you were to look at these two teams on paper, it was Penn State, not Iowa, who should be struggling to find their footing with a new offense after seven weeks.
The most depressing part of Saturday night, then, was that Penn State was exponentially sharper than Iowa on offense. They ran Bill O'Brien's New England import flawlessly, with Matt McGloin looking like a collegiate Tom Brady. Their line, forever an Achilles heel under Paterno, held up against an Iowa blitz package that it could not have possibly anticipated, run again and again without ever getting home. McGloin had all the time in the world to find wide open receivers, and he repeatedly hit them precisely where they needed to get the ball. Penn State's tight ends -- a two-star defensive end recruit, a two-star freshman whose only other offers were from Bucknell and Delaware, and an unheralded true freshman they plucked locally -- annihilated the Iowa defensive backfield, running past linebackers and jumping over safeties like the guys Brian Ferentz was coaching last year. And, after every completion, Penn State was on the ball and running past Iowa again before the Hawkeyes could get into a three-point stance. It wasn't a spread. It wasn't a gimmick. It was true modern pro style offense, run with ruthless efficiency by a group of guys who, twelve months ago, were running the only Big Ten offense stodgier than Iowa's.
I don't need to tell you how Iowa's offense simply refused to challenge Penn State downfield. I don't need to tell you how James Vandenberg repeatedly and routinely failed to connect with receivers on basic throws. I don't need to tell you how Iowa has failed to use C.J. Fiedorowicz and Ray Hamilton, its two four-star tight end recruits, as a threat to do anything other than try to drag a linebacker away from another futile three-yard out route or poorly-thrown screen pass. Iowa finished the night with one offensive touchdown, and that was a gift. Time of possession, a statistic that is generally meaningless but is so often cited by Kirk Ferentz in opposition to anything approaching high-tempo offense, was a 2:1 Penn State advantage despite their hurry-up scheme. At the end of the third quarter, when Penn State mercifully stopped pummeling Iowa on both sides of the ball, James Vandenberg was 9 for 23, averaging 5.21 yards per attempt, and touchdown-free for nine consecutive quarters. Worst of all: His pass efficiency rating at that point was nearly identical to his performance the week before.
That offense we had hoped we would see? The offense that took advantage of the distinct advantages our experienced quarterback and massive offensive line and manchild tight ends gave us? That offense that would not give up Iowa's core pro-style principles -- would not veer into gimmickry -- but would open up and speed up, just as the model coach of two different Ferentzes had done the year before? Penn State got that offense, and they're running it flawlessly with a personnel set that wasn't recruited for it and could not reasonably be expected to play to near perfection. Iowa's offense is, quite literally, stretch runs to the left side of the line and a flea flicker. It is slow in development, slow in execution, slow in every possible way. It is inept. It is incompetent. It is a bumbling, incoherent, comical shambles completely lacking in any organization or strategic thinking. It is so bad that, at the current rate, Iowa would need to play 59 games for its quarterback to match his touchdown total from the year before.
If there is anything that should finally and unequivocally prove to Kirk Ferentz that he is wrong, that his steadfast dedication to dogmatic principles that no longer matter and strategy that doesn't even address those principles (things like "we don't play up-tempo because those three and outs come too fast for our defense to rest") should be forever consigned to the wastebin of Iowa football history, it should be what he saw Saturday night. If there was ever an Exhibit A to show him that it can be better, that we can win now without going to the full Chip Kelly to do it, it is the game tape sitting on his desk this morning. For the sake of the program, let's hope he watches it. This is no longer simply execution, though the execution is horrible. This is a matter of thinking like a modern coach. Saturday was the sound of the world passing us by, and it's time we get in the race.
* -- The only non-freshman quarterback in FBS football to start every game and have a worse efficiency rating, ironically, is SMU's Garrett Gilbert, whose horrendous play with Texas in 2010 got Greg Davis fired.