Things are not great in Hawkeye Football land.
Three straight losses in three differently infuriating ways, no chance at any sort of division or Big Ten title, and all momentum seems to be sucked right out of the air for this year and beyond for Iowa football.
Questions abound from fans about nearly every aspect of this team, but particularly the offense, and in particular, the offensive play calling by offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, the inconsistent play — and injury status? — of Nate Stanley, and the under-utilization of tight end Noah Fant.
You know what you came here looking for from Kirk Ferentz’s meeting with the media yesterday (full transcript here), but first something of note: Kirk talked a lot in his introductory statement for this press conference. I’ll spare you most of the lengthy statement so we can get to the good stuff, but here’s an interesting tidbit:
KIRK FERENTZ: First thing is how do we move forward as a football team right now, what’s there left to play for, and I’ve always felt like anything in sports, I mentioned the other night we prepare pretty much year-round. You only get 12 opportunities guaranteed, so every game is special. We’ve got two scheduled and they’re important to us. I know they are for our opponents, also, and it really goes down to two things for a football team or anybody when you face disappointment. You’re either going to pull together or you’re going to divide or you’re going to fight and compete or you’re going to surrender. There really aren’t options in either one of those choices.
The choice is to push forward and maximize the opportunities moving forward, and I’m confident and comfortable our team will do that, and that’s where we’re at right now.
The other thing was regarding playing time, roles, and that type of thing with personnel decisions, etc, and as you can well imagine, our first goal as a team is to win, and then our secondary goals are to score points offensively and stop points on the defensive side.
We spent a lot of time evaluating our team, looking at the team, watching them, and then week to week trying to figure out what gives us the best chance to do those two things, attain those two goals, and it’s a little bit complex. It starts with knowing your personnel and then obviously trying to match your opponents, anticipated things that they’re going to give you. So it depends on the plan.
Well Kirk, if your first goal is to win, maybe you should use your best personnel. Let’s just jump right into that, as nobody wasted anytime getting right to the Noah Fant questions this week.
Q. With Noah, I don’t understand how a player of that resume doesn’t get on the field. I don’t understand that. It feels like he’s one of the best players.
KIRK FERENTZ: No question. I said the other night, we’ve got two really good tight ends, and it’s rare to have that. But if you look at it, this year plus compared to last year, we’re going about roughly the same ratio, amount of snaps. They’re out there, he and T.J. are out there together at times, they’re out there separately at times, and if they are out there separately, the lean is to T.J. probably because he’s a little bit more versatile as a tight end. I would compare him more to a specialist position. But nonetheless, he’s an outstanding football player, and we’ve tried to get him the ball, and we’ll continue to try to get him the ball.
There’s the money line that’s making the rounds on Twitter. Noah Fant is simply a ‘specialist,’ and T.J. Hockenson is “more versatile.” Excuse me? Your potential first round draft pick tight end is simply a specialist to you? What does that even mean? Let’s take that and add onto it what Kirk said earlier about Fant on the Big Ten Coaches Teleconference:
KF on the B1G tele talking Fant.— Marc Morehouse (@marcmorehouse) November 13, 2018
FYI, Fant wasn’t requested for interviews today. pic.twitter.com/jKGbm76Oy5
So, Noah Fant is a specialist, but also, if the teleconference answer is to be believed, because he draws double teams, he just deserves to be benched? Gotcha. Can you imagine Bill Belichick using that mentality? It’s questionable at best.
Q. Noah had, I believe, eight or nine snaps in the second half. Is that enough in your eyes for Noah?
KIRK FERENTZ: Nothing really looked very good last Saturday, quite frankly, offensively. There wasn’t much we did that really did with consistency, so we went back and looked at everything and we’ll try to keep him involved and get him involved. But he’s a good football player. We’re going to be a better team if we can get him the ball. He didn’t play that many snaps against Indiana, but he had a lot of production, and that was coming off an injury and what have you. Snap count was pretty low, but his production was really high, as was T.J.’s, and we didn’t get that kind of production from either of the guys the other night. Not putting it on them, it’s just Northwestern did a really good job of making it tough on us the other day.
Regardless of how productive Hockenson or Fant were on Saturday, Hock wasn’t benched for most of the second half, but I digress.
Q. There’s some speculation that there’s maybe a character issue or a vendetta issue. It doesn’t seem like that’s actually the case, though, right?
KIRK FERENTZ: Well, if that’s floating around out there, which I’ve got to apologize, I’ll read the papers tomorrow night. I haven’t heard that. I can assure you that’s not an issue. Noah is a high-character guy. He’s been tremendous with us. He’s a great kid. So there’s no issues there at all, and that’s hardly the deal.
Well, that settles that part of the issue, I suppose. I’m not someone who believes much in conspiracy theories, so I guess I’ll take this at face value. We really don’t have any other option.
The other big highlight of this presser was about Kirk’s delegation of playcalling:
Q. You’ve told us in the past that Phil has the primary decision making on personnel decisions on defense. Is the same true for Brian on offense?
KIRK FERENTZ: Yes, pretty much, and LeVar on special teams. We’ll have conversations. I’ll interject thoughts, ideas. I had one last night before we left on the other side of the ball about a couple things. But that’s kind of always been the way I’ve operated. I’ll make my observations, say what I think is important, and then pretty much let the coordinators handle things.
Obviously there are times you step in. Bob Sanders in 2000 I thought it was time to get him on the field and see what we could do, see if he would help things.
But yeah, we let the coordinators pretty much dictate, and they’re the ones that have to make the calls in critical times, so I think it’s better that way.
I actually believe this is the case, but man, what a way to try and take the blame off his shoulders.
Q. Do you think the running back by committee has hindered [the running game]? Has it not allowed it to get into a rhythm?
KIRK FERENTZ: I don’t think necessarily. I think it’s a matter of us being a little bit more cohesive and trying to -- we’ve got to push this thing through. It’s kind of like our team overall; we’ve just got to push this thing through and do things a little bit better.
I’d be really interested if we saw Mekhi Sargent get 90% of the snaps for a game and see if he could finally get that elusive 100 yards rushing. The run game has problems and it’s not entirely the offensive line’s fault. We’ve talked so much in the past about Iowa football being at its best when it has a thunder and lightning tandem, but this year, it’s not the case, and I think it’s hindering the run game, which is in turn making Stanley more nervous in his progressions in the passing game.
And last but not least, Kirk on playing out the rest of the season:
Q. You mentioned after the Purdue game, you’re building for the next one, next Big Ten Championship. How important is this finishing stretch --
KIRK FERENTZ: It’s always important. We’ve always talked about November football being important, and that hasn’t changed. Again, this has been disappointing because we’ve had two tough games in this month and then another one prior to that.
Coming out of Purdue, it looked like a long shot to go to Indy, and yeah, so that’s always been our attitude ... But you’re always trying to build towards something, and it’s really important, you’re either adding to it, you’re contributing, or you’re taking away from.
...And then right along with that, you get pressed about evaluating teams and all that, and I am reluctant to do that until the season is over. Two of my favorite teams to coach and work with on a daily basis are not going to go down in the record books as memorable Iowa teams perhaps for a lot of people, but they will for me. The ‘13 season and the ‘08 season were two of the better -- I thought those guys really -- they were on the right page, they were working together and maximized every opportunity as best they could. In ‘08 we lost -- after our 3-0 start, got off to a good start and then had three tough losses like this stretch. But they came out of it. We had one more loss at Illinois, coincidentally, by three points I think. But that season, the team just kept driving and kept pushing. That’s all we’re asking our guys to do right now, and there’s still a lot of good moments we can have if we’ll stick with it, and that’s the goal right now.
Well, if Kirk loved the work from the 2008 team that preceded the last great Iowa football team, maybe we have something to look forward to next year. Or maybe we have another 2014 in store with a QB battle and embarrassing bowl loss to Tennessee.
I guess we’ll find out!