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Iowa Football in the Kirk Ferentz Era: A Lesson in Futility

Why Kirk Ferentz’s desired football game does more harm than good

NCAA Football: Outback Bowl-Florida vs Iowa Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

As StoopsMyAss pointed out this weekend, The Iowa Way is, essentially, the air we breathe as Iowa football fans. Since I am a millenial Hawkeye football fan, it is all I know. For all the kvetching we do about Iowa’s offense - and it’s a lot - it is, in my view, only a small part in the way Ferentz views the ideal football game.

So - why do I believe that?

The microcosm of the Northwestern game, this season so far, and Kirk’s time at Iowa was his halftime decision to grant Northwestern the wind at the beginning of the second half. Taken on its face, this decision was bold. It afforded Northwestern an unnecessary upperhand when said advantage might not exist when the fields flipped before the 4th quarter. Sure, he had enough confidence in Iowa’s defense so they could hold Northwestern to seven points or less in the frame - a confidence validated by the three-and-out they forced.

Then a 60-yard punt happened which wasn’t caught due to some factor of weather, inexperience, and misalignment; turning it into an 80-yarder.

The rest, as they say, was history. Iowa was unable to manufacture any offense outside of two-minute-ish drills when points were absolutely necessary.

So why does Kirk Ferentz put his team in such a position - basically granting a single-possession game against a mediocre opponent going into the fourth quarter? Especially, as you will learn, he is among the worst in the business of Big Ten football at these types of games.

Of current Big Ten teams (plus Iowa State), Iowa finds themselves in the most single-possession games in the dataset available through sports-reference: 2000-onward. As an aside, it is a particularly convenient coincidence this happens to be the case, as I continually forget 1999 existed as a result of this.

This would be a pretty okay thing, if we’re being honest, if Iowa was actually good at closing the door on opponents. But, it is not.

One-Possession Games* since 2000

School Games Win Percentage Record
School Games Win Percentage Record
Ohio State 67 67.2% (45-22)
Northwestern 83 62.7% (52-31)
Maryland 75 57.3% (43-32)
Penn State 72 54.2% (39-33)
Michigan State 78 51.3% (40-38)
Michigan 82 51.2% (42-40)
Wisconsin 84 51.2% (43-41)
Nebraska 67 50.7% (34-33)
Illinois 62 50.0% (31-31)
Iowa State 68 48.5% (33-35)
Minnesota 79 46.8% (37-42)
Iowa 86 46.5% (40-46)
Rutgers 63 46.0% (29-34)
Purdue 76 39.5% (30-46)
Indiana 67 38.8% (26-41)
*differential less than or equal to 7 points

Northwestern, for instance, thrives in these situations. Unlike Ohio State, which possesses a talent gap unmatched in the conference, the Wildcats are a team much like Iowa; faced with recruiting restrictions, the ‘Cats have to find ways to overcome. Look no further than last weekend’s game as an indicator of their ability to win these games.

It was as if Northwestern took Iowa’s overall mindset and used it against the Hawkeyes:

  1. Bend but don’t break on defense - two of Iowa’s three possessions over 40 yards ended without points being scored
  2. Win the hidden yardage - see: 80-yard punt
  3. Hold on for dear life - see: 1

Iowa is 1-6 against Northwestern in games like this.

Of the 86 games Iowa’s played within a touchdown of their opponent in the KF era, 62 happen against teams where it is a relatively common occurrence (greater than or equal to three times). Iowa has won 30 of those games.

Iowa’s Record by Close Game Opponent

Opponent Games Win Percentage Record
Opponent Games Win Percentage Record
Iowa State 9 33% (3-6)
Michigan State 8 50% (4-4)
Wisconsin 8 25% (2-6)
Minnesota 7 57% (4-3)
Northwestern 7 14% (1-6)
Michigan 6 67% (4-2)
Penn State 6 83% (5-1)
Pittsburgh 4 75% (3-1)
Purdue 4 75% (3-1)
Indiana 3 33% (1-2)

In my opinion, there are two instances, in aggregate, where Kirk Ferentz’s strategy for close games is to their benefit: against Penn State and Michigan. Really, if the scales did not tip so much in Iowa State, Wisconsin, or Northwestern’s favor, the above table and results would be much more bearable. But we must operate within reality - the scale is most tipped against Iowa with the three programs most familiar with Kirk Ferentz.

Yet, that is the problem with familiarity. Teams will only get more familiar with Kirk Ferentz. Penn State proved last year it is possible to be familiar with Ferentz before you ever meet him on the gridiron. For P.J. Fleck and Jeff Brohm, it is distinctly possible they could replicate the same mindset, if not the same result, against Iowa this year.

Would it surprise you if they did?

The cherry on this shit sundae is there are still 24 more games where Iowa plays their opponent close. If you’ve done the math, you know it means there are only 10 wins. Ten against teams Iowa should take behind the woodshed like: Arkansas State, Ball State, Northern Iowa, and Northern Illinois. There’s the 2004 Capital Bowl win we all remember fondly despite Ferentz nearly flubbing it. Victory is the best eraser, after all.

The Hawkeyes, on average, find themselves in a game which is too close just about every other year with an opponent it should handle easily. Nine times Iowa has had a one-possession game with a “Group of 5” or FCS opponent. Like much else in this post, it would be much easier to stomach if Iowa actually found ways to win these close games consistently.

Wisconsin, for instance, is 10-0 in such games. Iowa, on the other hand, is 5-4. Four inexplicable losses: Michigans Central (2012) and Western (2007), North Dakota State (2016), and Northern Illinois (2013). We would arguably not hem and haw about the downfalls of The Iowa Way if these results were flipped. Iowa would be a more respectable 44-42, overall, and in a virtual tie with Michigan and Wisconsin in the table above.

If only.

58% into another season with Kirk Ferentz and it’s looking like another one of those seasons. Mediocre. Uninspired. Frustrating.

Saturday, an opportunity presented itself - to take control of the game, to stay in the division hunt, to make this team exciting - and Kirk went the other direction. What’s funnier is there is not an antonym to “an opportunist” from my research. It makes sense: why would someone choose not only to refuse an opportunity but make a decision in the completely other direction? So I figured I might offer Merriam-Webster one: