IOWA CITY, IA - NOVEMBER 12: Head Coach Kirk Ferentz of the Iowa Hawkeyes looks on against the Michigan State Spartans at Kinnick Stadium November 12, 2011 in Iowa City, Iowa. Michigan State beat Iowa 37-21. (Photo by Reese Strickland/Getty Images)
We've spent the week talking about Greg Davis and Norm Parker and the armada of youngsters occupying space on the depth chart, but at the end of the day, Kirk Ferentz is still the head coach of the Iowa Hawkeyes. He might be looser. He might be hungrier for success. He might see the end coming and want one more run at the brass ring. But he's still Kirk Ferentz, and there are Kirk Ferentz things that won't change.
From the day he arrived, Ferentz has treated the non-conference slate as a de facto preseason. The NFL gradually works its way through the preseason, with starters getting progressively more playing time until the final week, where those starters are benched for rest. Ferentz has used the schedule to do the same: Sacrificial lamb in week one, Iowa State in week two, BCS-level opponent (Arizona and Pitt in the recent past) in week three, second sacrificial lamb in week four. If done right, he can slowly ramp up his starters and his playbook diversity, give them a de facto bye week before conference play begins, and then focus on what he finds truly important: The Big Ten.
This year, the script is flipped. On paper, Northern Illinois is the toughest non-conference opponent Iowa will face. NIU is a back-to-back 11-game winner with a Big Ten-based coaching staff that has plenty of institutional knowledge of Iowa. The last two times Iowa has faced NIU (2006 and 2007), the games were hard-fought and low-scoring. And unlike every other non-conference game on Iowa's 2012 schedule, it's not being played in Iowa City. Yes, NIU's offense is in full-on rebuilding mode, and yes, the Husky defense might not have been that good last season, but this is no pushover. The question, then, is what does Kirk Ferentz do if he's forced to give up his close-to-the-vest style in the first week?
In the past, the opponent didn't much matter. Iowa would go plain vanilla on both sides of the ball in the pre-Big Ten non-conference season. When behind, Iowa didn't ever really do much to push the issue. In fact, in his first twelve seasons as head coach at Iowa, Kirk Ferentz had one come-from-behind non-conference victory: 2009 UNI, and I don't think anyone would claim that win was a result of some massive adjustment by the staff. I'm not claiming they don't care about winning -- it's still competitive football -- but attempting a comeback win by using the entire playbook and giving conference opponents game tape of what they planned to do during the season was simply not worth the cost.
Something changed in the fourth quarter of last year's game against Pitt. Iowa was down 24-10 entering the fourth quarter and staggering to a second straight non-conference defeat when the offense seized on something: Pitt was completely incapable of covering their receivers in four-wide formations, especially on deep routes up the seam. And so launched The Comeback, as Iowa improbably turned a 24-3 third-quarter deficit into a 31-27 win. They had to leave their comfort zone to do it, but Iowa had sold that for a win. The next week, against Louisiana-Monroe, Iowa spent the first half trying out offensive concepts it had previously treated with scorn: No huddle, four-wide, imbalanced lines, etc.
One week later, they were all gone, replaced with a staid, stale, borderline incomprehensible gameplan seemingly made to force the failure of the no-huddle offense and shut the fans up. Iowa hadn't tipped its hand against Pitt and Louisiana-Monroe so much as it had bluffed at everyone else.
This year, Iowa has a new offensive coordinator, a new defensive coordinator, and a bunch of guys still trying to feel their way through was it is they are supposed to do in their new roles. If there's ever been a scenario where keeping things simple and focusing on execution of the base system, it's tomorrow. It would be better if Central Michigan was the opener, and it's certainly possible that Northern Illinois can't take Iowa's first scripted punch in the teeth, and tomorrow turns into a bloodbath and a workout for the backups.
But what if the Huskies don't? What if they do what they did in 2006 and 2007, and hang around? What if they take a second-half lead? At what point does Ferentz take the plastic wrap off the secret part of the playbook? At what point does he trade long-term strategic benefit for short-term victory? This week and next week will tell us a lot about just how much Ferentz has changed. That's the thing to watch tomorrow.