Kirk Ferentz is the greatest of all time.
You can debate the semantics all you want, but Kirk now sits alone among the top of Iowa’s all-time list of head coaching wins with 144. It’s an incredible feat and the story lines surrounding the achievement are nearly as incredible.
As we’re all aware by now, Ferentz’s first win back in 1999 came against the same Northern Illinois the Hawkeyes took down on Saturday. Now in his 20th season, Ferentz surpassed the win total Hayden Fry established after the same number of seasons. The man calling the defense, Phil Parker, has been on the staff since Ferentz’s first year in 1999 and shares the same last name as his only other defensive coordinator, the late, great Norm Parker. And the man calling the offense was none other than Kirk’s own son, Brian, with his first offensive coordinator, Ken O’Keefe, now back on staff as quarterbacks coach.
The images of Ferentz embracing Brian and celebrating with the team in the locker room are incredible.
If you are a #Hawkeyes fan you should get a copy of The Gazette tomorrow. It's not too often that we put sports on the front page and tomorrow it's the entire front page. Inside is the Final Score pages with games stories and all the other sections you expect in our Sunday paper. pic.twitter.com/NTipyuzNjF— Stephen Mally (@stephenmally) September 2, 2018
Looking at the raw emotion from the head man was just another reminder of what a tremendous human being he is, and all that he’s done for the Iowa Hawkeyes and University of Iowa over the last two decades. It’s easy to forget when we’re complaining about 3 and outs, 8-4 seasons and struggles against MAC opponents, but Hawkeye fans are incredibly lucky to have Kirk Ferentz and the tremendous success we’ve witnessed over the last 19.1 seasons.
Speaking of struggles against MAC opponents, around the midway point on Saturday, we saw all the makings of the annual heart attack game we’ve come to hate. The signs were all there, starting with the very first series. There was an easy drop on first down, a mildly successful run following the pass on first down and then the drop from preseason All-American Noah Fant on what would have been the first touchdown of the season.
Then the entire punt unit decided to give the old olé block to punter Colten Rastetter. Any one of the 4 NIU defenders could have blocked it, and frankly, Iowa was lucky it wasn’t 6 the other way.
But as we’ve come to expect under Ferentz, the defense was there to save the day and the Hawkeyes escaped unscathed. Thank the Lord.
That first series was a microcosm for the entire first half. There was a lot there that has me.... concerned about the potential for issues.
We spent all the offseason daydreaming about the possibilities of this offense, starting with Nate Stanley. But Stanley never seemed to find a rhythm on Saturday. After that beauty of a deep ball on the first series, Stanley channeled his inner Jake Christensen for much of the remainder of the game burying a number of passes into the turf at the feet of open receivers.
While that’s a mental note to make and monitor into next week, I was equally concerned about the running game in the first half. We saw struggles up front in the running game a year ago and I had flashbacks for long stretches on Saturday. There was little running room much of the first half and when there was, it seemed to be called back on a hold.
I was concerned.
If, sitting at 3-0 with the half Iowa put together, you weren’t, I’m questioning your sanity. Fortunately, Saturday was a tale of two halves and the second had a happy ending.
The running game looked vastly improved with Brian Ferentz opting to lean on Northern Illinois with a number of 3 tight end sets and good old fashioned smash mouth football. it worked tremendously with the battering ram in at running back in Toren Young.
I was a bit surprised we didn’t see more of him in the first half given he had been the presumed starter until a week ago, but was not disappointed given what I saw from both Ivory Kelly-Martin and Mehki Sargent. Each showed good burst and the one-cut decision-making this offense needs. But neither broke much off with Northern Illinois seeming to have tremendous success against Iowa’s offensive line early.
When Young burst onto the scene in the second half with a 40-yarder, the flood gates opened and the game was out of reach almost immediately. The offensive line found their confidence and their strength and there was no looking back.
As we look at last Saturday as a way to project this team forward, there are reasons for both optimism and pessimism.
The running game looked good in the second half, but is that due to the big uglies figuring things out and hitting their stride or the fact the opponent was from the MAC and undersized? Iowa State isn’t exactly a litmus test for the Big Ten either, but it’s something to watch as we move into lat September. I expect to see some change with the return of Tristan Wirfs and Alaric Jackson next week.
Nate Stanley really did not look like himself. He finished just 11 of 23 for 108 yards with 1 TD and 1 INT. It wasn’t a great day. The interception, while it acted like a decent punt, was a really poor decision and a less than stellar ball. That seemed like a metaphor for his day. Most of his success came in throwing to the tight ends, which is fine, but only one Iowa receiver caught a pass and he accounted for less than a quarter of Stanley’s abysmal passing yardage output. That has to improve for this team to achieve the level of success I felt they would coming into the season.
Defensively, there was a lot to like in a game where the opponent was shut out until garbage time, but there were some major red flags.
For starters, the central figure and new face of the defense spent most of the afternoon riding the pine. Amani Jones was benched after really struggling in the first half. I love his athleticism and think he could be very good, but he took himself out of a number of plays, even when he re-entered with the 2nd unit int he 4th quarter. Worse yet, he had the defense out of position at times. That can’t happen.
When it did, we saw Northern Illinois gash the Hawkeyes with the read-option. I was baffled they didn’t stay with it and a handful of drives in the first half stalled out after their staff opted to get cute rather than ram it down the throats of our defensive tackles. I doubt Big Ten opponents will be so generous.
For as rough as things looked at times in the first half, Iowa still walked away with a 26-point victory over a team that will be bowling this year and was picked to win their division by most and the entire MAC by some.
The offensive line, despite some early struggles, did get things going and they looked punishing down the stretch. Just as importantly, they kept Stanley very clean. Northern Illinois managed just one sack and two tackles for loss - a stat they led the country in a season ago with nearly 9 per game. That bodes well for this coming week and the remainder of the year.
On defense, you had to love what we saw out of the unit as a whole, despite some issues against the read-option. There was a stretch deep into the 4th quarter where Iowa had allowed single digit yardage to the Huskies for the half.
A big factor was the defensive ends, who finished with 4 of Iowa’s 5 sacks. AJ Epenesa also had the big strip sack of NIU QB Marcus Childers. The Hawkeyes were relentless in their attack and I loved it. I expect the defensive line to be very good with the return of the two defensive tackles who were absent Saturday.
In the secondary, there was really no opportunity for much testing. NIU only threw for 110 yards as the line was in the backfield most of the day. Amani Hooker did Amani Hooker things, picking off a pass and securing a safety for the Hawkeyes. I thought both Michael Ojemudia and Matt Hankins looked fine. Honestly, I didn’t really notice them much which is a tribute to both them and the meager throwing ability allowed by the front 7.
And despite the struggles from Amani Jones, I really liked what I saw from Nick Niemann and Kristian Welch looked better than I had expected. Jack Hockaday did a fine job filling in, though I expect Jones to get another crack at starting this week. We knew there would be growing pains with this group, but the pieces are there and the weapons on the line should help hide the holes.
Finally, on special teams, I was very pleasantly surprised. Kyle Groeneweg looked very, very good on the punt return team. It wasn’t just that he didn’t let punts go sailing over him un-caught, though that was a major victory and saved a ton of field position. Groeneweg also fielded all but the first punt without taking a fair catch, often gaining a handful of positive yards and putting pressure on the defense. He has good burst, good instincts and very sure hands. I love what he brings in punt return.
And most importantly, PUNTING IS WINNING AGAIN!
I don’t know about you, but I was ready to throw in the towel on Colten Rastetter a season ago. When that first punt was blocked, things didn’t look better. But from that point forward, he looked like a new man. He ended up averaging nearly 54 yards a punt and showed a very good mix of both the rugby-style and traditional punts, even adding some very good hang time to the latter. Iowa football is better when they’re winning the field position game, and that’s what we saw on Saturday.
At the end of the day, a win is a win. But Saturday felt a little better than just a win. There were the customary heart palpitations for a good portion of the first half and there are some genuine concerns going forward, but there are more reasons for optimism.
Not least among those reasons are the head man. This isn’t his first rodeo. And perhaps more importantly, he’s shown a recent penchant for adaptation. The new blood on the staff and his son calling the offense has seemed to give him some new life for the twilight of his career and I think that bodes well for the remainder of this season.
If nothing else, we’ve seen the matchup with Iowa State taken more seriously than perhaps it had been in Ferentz years past. I expect this week to be a good test, but one the Hawkeyes should pass.
I Kirk does prevail, he’ll personally match the win total for Iowa State dating back to the end of the 1983 season. That is, with a win, Kirk will have done in 20 years what it has taken Iowa State 35 years and 6 head coaches to do. It’s a 4pm kick, I expect the Hawkeyes to #WinInTheDark.
Happy Monday. Happy Labor Day. Happy Hate Week.
Go Hawks! Beat State!