When Greg Davis was hired back in February, he rode into Iowa City (on horseback I presume), guns blazing, tongue loose, and spoke words of optimism for every Iowa fan tired of the slow, predictable, unimaginative offense we've seen over the past few years. Davis talked of tempo, no-huddle, speed at receiver, merging philosophies, and about trying to score at the end of halves.
Kirk Ferentz's conservatism is well known. He has played for overtime on multiple occasions and sat on the ball with timeouts to spare at the end of the second quarter more times than I can remember. So Greg Davis saying, “We're going to go for it,” was refreshing and hopeful.
So Iowa went for it. Ten times this year, the Hawkeyes turned to their 2-minute offense in hopes for a quick score before the end of the first half or end of the game. Let's see how that turned out.
End of Half - 6 play, 24 yards
Iowa drove down to the NIU 33, which would have been good enough for a long FG try had Iowa just run the ball a couple times. Instead, James Vandenberg was sacked twice and Iowa let the clock run out staring at a 3rd-and-31.
End of Half - 4 plays, 12 yards
Iowa had good field position following an interception and a successful screen play set Iowa up around midfield with just under a minute to go. Vandenberg then threw an interception trying to push the ball down the field. ISU took over and was able to move down the field far enough to attempt a FG, albeit a really long one, as the half ended. Luckily, they missed.
End of Game - 7 plays, 58 yards
Down 3, Iowa took over with 2 minutes to go from its 10 yard-line. Vandenberg completed a long pass to Keenan Davis and a couple of nifty throws to Damon Bullock out of the backfield to get down to the ISU 32, close enough for the tying FG attempt. Vandenberg threw another interception and the game was over.
End of Half - 3 plays, 10 yards
This one was kind of a half-hearted attempt by the Iowa offense. Mark Weisman broke through for 12 yards on the first play of the drive, and then Iowa threw 2 straight screen passes for -2 yards and let the clock run out.
End of Half - 3 plays, 1 yard
The drive started with a holding penalty that put Iowa 1st-and-16 from its own 11 with a little under a little under 2 minutes to go in the half. That didn't slow Iowa though, and the Hawks came out firing. Vandenberg quickly threw 2 incomplete passes, then a 3rd down throw short of the sticks (imagine that). CMU called a time out, got the ball back with plenty of time left on the clock, and made a FG to push its lead from 6 to 9.
End of Half - 3 plays, 4 yards
Iowa started the drive around midfield and completed a 9-yard pass on first down. After failing to move the chains on 2nd and 3rd down, Iowa lined up to go for it on 4th down and was called for a false start. Punt. Michigan State was able to drive down the field for a late FG attempt, but clock management buffoonery ensued and time ran out before they could get the kick off.
End of Game - 10 plays, 33 yards
Even though there was over 4 minutes left when Iowa started the drive, they needed 2 scores and were in hurry-up mode. Though they needed to score quickly, Iowa went horizontal instead of vertical and didn't have a play of over 7 yards on that drive. They somehow managed to get a delay of game IN THE HURRY-UP. And to top it all off, instead of kicking the needed FG, went for it on 4th down and failed miserably.
End of Game - 8 plays, 52 yards
Sparked by a 20 yards Vandenberg run, Iowa was having its best 2-minute drive of the year. With 1st-and-10 from Purdue's 42, Iowa just needed one more first down to kick the game winning FG. Instead, 2 incomplete passes, and 2 completed passes short of the sticks, and Iowa turned it over on downs leaving Purdue with just enough time to kick their own game winning FG.
End of Half - 8 plays, 18 yards
Iowa had great field position thanks to a long punt return by Micah Hyde. It took 8 plays to gain just 18 yards, but Iowa managed to get in position to kick a FG into the 30 mph wind. Really, the FG should have been from closer, but the last 3 downs were awful. An incomplete pass, followed by fumbled snap/rush for 0 yards, then chaos, a timeout, an illegal substitution following the timeout, and an incomplete pass.
End of Game - 3 plays, 12 yards
There was over 3 minutes left, so Iowa wasn't in full hurry-up mode. But this drive was Iowa's last chance at getting a win against Nebraska, the last chance to end the losing streak, and the last chance to end the season on a positive note. Vandenberg threw a slant to highly contested slant to Krieger-Coble on first down. Weisman rushed for a first down on the next play. Then Vandenberg went back to the exact same contested slant to Kreiger-Coble and this time it was picked off. The end.
Summary of the drives
So Iowa went to the 2-minute offense 10 times this year at the end of a half or game. Those 10 drives produced 224 yards, 1 FG attempt (missed), 0 TDs, 3 INTs, and 2 turnover on downs. If you're counting, that is ZERO points.
To make matters worse, trying to generate offense instead of kill the clock actually led to 3 FG attempts (and one that should have been attempted if MSU's coaching staff had any clue about what they were doing) for the opponents...2 of those FGs were made and Iowa lost those games by 1 point and 3 points. Killer.
So the Greg Davis idea of going for a score in the waning minutes actually netted Iowa -6 points. Awesome.
So now what?
I am absolutely not advocating that Iowa stop trying to score at the end of halves. Though, I do think the one-size-fits-all strategy needs to be evaluated. Greg Davis said definitively that Iowa would try to score. But there are some situations that running the clock down is a better strategy, especially when the hurry-up offense is terrible and probably isn't going to score anyway. Iowa needs to do a better job of situationally determining the best strategy, which is not something Ferentz & Co. has ever done well.
The good news, perhaps, is that Ferentz has shown a willingness to change and move away from over-conservatism (he still has a ways to go). Plus, I am optimistic that the decision making will improve with time. Ferentz has done a much, much better job on 4th down calls during the last couple of years and seems to make the right decision more than not on whether to go for it or punt. Maybe it's just my bad memory, but I don't recall KF ever going for it on something like 4th-and-3 from the 38 in the past. These days though, I'm pretty confident he would go for it in most circumstance.
What this all boils down to, though, is that the hurry-up offense was just bad. That is just a reflection of how bad the offense was as a whole. And, really, it wouldn't have taken a much better offense to tip these late half situations in Iowa's favor. An extra first down on most of these drives was all that was needed. Iowa almost certainly would have score against ISU if it had gotten a first down instead of a turnover. Same against Northwestern, Purdue, and Nebraska. An extra first down in some of these situations and Iowa is probably preparing for some crappy bowl game right now.
So, even though Greg Davis is coming back next year, I am optimistic that the offense, including the hurry-up, next year will be better (it can't get any worse, right?). And at least better enough to get that extra first down.