With Iowa replacing five-year offensive coordinator and one-time national champion Greg Davis with Brian Ferentz, it seems fitting to take a look back on an era of Hawkeye football that was confusing, frustrating, and more than a little boring despite Iowa’s first 12-win regular season in program history. Exactly what did Davis bring to the table and on what parts of the proverbial bed did he defecate? Let’s take a dive into Iowa’s offensive statistics during his tenure to try to find out exactly that. And to hopefully help purge the memories of all of the drop-downs, out routes and telegraphed jet sweeps.
Iowa has never really been known for lighting up any stat sheets when airing it out. In fact, over the last 15 years, the Hawkeyes have been quite content to make nearly all their hay on the ground, between the tackles. And yet, somehow, the feeling was that under Davis, passing production was even more underwhelming than usual. How accurate were our gut feelings? Spot on.
It’s not as if Davis was working without any sort of running game to complement his passing scheme. Only in 2012 did Iowa rush for fewer yards per game than it’s average. No, Iowa’s offense was simply impotent when it came to throwing the ball, despite the ability to lean on a middling-to-good rush attack. This is almost entirely due to the reliance upon short, high-percentage routes around which Davis’ scheme revolved. While Iowa’s rushing efficiency remained relatively flat, if not slightly better than average, passing yards per attempt looked anemic, with only 2015 seeing anything near 8 YPA.
Much is made about this concept at Iowa. Kirk Ferentz has long stated that his preference would be to run a balanced attack. This is often mistaken for equal parts passing and rushing. But this has rarely been the case and Ferentz more often opts for a run-heavy strategy. What’s interesting here is that as much as Davis was touted as a guru when it came to airing the ball out more, from 2014-2016 fewer and fewer passes were executed.
Now, this comes with a bit of a caveat. In both 2015 and 2016, C.J. Beathard would regularly check out of plays and into running plays when it looked like the offensive line had a numbers advantage to exploit. That could account for some of the drop off. But my instincts tell me that it was likely that Rudock in 2013 and 2014 was doing the same thing. The truly disturbing thought here is that as Davis had more time to install his system, the less it was used. If we look at balance as a ratio of the number of rushes to the number of passes, the difference is just as stark.
This should be the place where Davis’ offense would have been a shining star, if anywhere. The idea of short routes was to get the completion quickly, allowing receivers to make plays rather than fight for 50/50 balls downfield, leading to higher completion rates and, hopefully sustained drives. But this is not exactly how things went.
With the exception of 2014, the Hawkeyes were unable to sustain drives nearly as often through the air, having to rely heavily on the ground game. And while this is how Iowa would prefer to do it, the lack of a passing threat lead to fewer and fewer first downs and, by extension, shorter drives. In 2016, Iowa might as well have given up on trying to throw the ball (and they basically did in the last 4 games of the season).
Strangely, this is one area in which Iowa did not completely underperform under Davis. But the Hawks weren’t exactly air-mailing touchdowns left and right either. With the (understandable) exception of 2012, Iowa was right about at their average for passing TDs per game. And despite coming in significantly below average in 2015, they easily made up for it with the breakout play of senior Jordan Canzeri with Daniels and Wadley following close behind.
All in all, Iowa’s scoring was fairly pedestrian with the exception of the historical 2015 season. Say what you want about an easy schedule, something had to be clicking to average 17.5 points per game just from rushing touchdowns.
When I was putting this all together and I saw the next (and final) graph, I immediately understood why Ferentz wanted to hire Davis in the first place. Kirk’s philosophy rests upon minimizing mistakes. It’s a very conservative ideology, but it is not without its merits. Every turnover you can eliminate keeps the opponent’s defense on the field for at least one more play. And in a game with 60-80 offensive plays per side, that does two things. First, it wears that defense down. Second, it increases the number of times that same defense can make a mistake and allow for a big play.
In 2015, Iowa thrived on these very sorts of big plays. So how does this tie in with Davis? His short, quick routes make it far less likely that your quarterback can or will throw an interception. With Ferentz’s emphasis on minimizing mistakes/turnovers, an offensive system with that advantage built into it would have looked mighty attractive to the head coach.
Iowa, under Davis’ coordination and QB coaching, simply did not turn the ball over as often as they had in the past. And coming right off of the heels of Ricky “Pick Six” Stanzi (#Merica), you can imagine just how well timed this hire might have seemed at the time. Disagree with the choice to bring Greg Davis aboard or not, there is really no way around the fact that he was incredibly effective at reducing turnovers in the form of interceptions.
I was never a huge Greg Davis fan and I was never excited about hiring him. But after a 12-2 season, I was willing to put up with some of the frustrations I had felt. And now, after writing this piece, I have a bit of a different perspective. Sure, Davis/Ferentz was probably a bad marriage, as Jon Miller would call it. But I understand the hire now, five years later. There’s a definite logic to it. And in some small way, Greg Davis’ philosophy might have complemented Ferentz’s.
Maybe given different personnel and less attrition at key skill positions, this combination could have worked. But in the end, Greg Davis gave five years to the Hawkeyes and he gave us C.J. Beathard and introduced us to the future with either Nathan Stanley or Peyton Mansell. He took Iowa to its best record in its long and storied history. I will never forget this, either:
And from the very bottom of my heart, Greg Davis, I wish you the best in your retirement. And if you ever find yourself back down in Austin, TX, your first round is on me.