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Hawkeyes Win How They’re Built to Win, Not How You Want Them To

The Iowa Hawkeyes don’t win pretty. They don’t care and neither should you.

Penn State v Iowa
The Hawkeyes are doing it their way, and that’s beautiful to watch.
Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

The Iowa Hawkeyes are 6-0 for the third time in the 23 years of the Kirk Ferentz era. They’re ranked #2 in the AP Poll for the first time 36 years. They just took down a top-5 opponent inside Kinnick Stadium for the fifth time in six tries, but for the first time while also ranked in the top-5 since 1985. Any way you slice it, we’re in the midst of an historic season from the Iowa Hawkeyes.

While some programs are in a position to expect seasons such as this on a regular basis, Iowa is not one. The Hawkeyes do not have their pick of numerous 4- and 5-star prospects knocking down the doors nor do they have a laundry list of conference or national championships to sell or lean on.

It’s why Iowa fans have a hard time buying in during such historic runs and why outsiders are quick to dismiss the success as deserved.

Despite the national hype surrounding a number of Iowa’s opponents entering both the season and their individual matchups with the Hawkeyes, we’ve already seen the narrative around Iowa quickly turn to a softness of their schedule and their luck to be sitting at 6-0.

Iowa’s offense isn’t putting up crazy numbers.

Iowa doesn’t have an elite quarterback or team speed.

Iowa’s defense is relying on turning people over at a rate that nobody else in the country is even close to.

Iowa is winning games against backup quarterbacks.

On. And on. And on.

Those all may well be true. Iowa doesn’t care. That’s not what Iowa is. That’s not how this program has been built and not how they win games. Kirk Ferentz doesn’t care what you think his offense should look like. Phil Parker doesn’t care what your advanced computer model says about the probability of his defense turning people over at this rate. Nobody in that program cares at all what anyone outside thinks about their ranking or how they got it.

They got it because they played one of the most difficult schedules in the country to-date and they’ve beaten the pants off of everyone not named Penn State. And in case you missed it, they beat them too.

That’s more than Alabama could say about unranked Texas A&M. That’s more than Ohio State could say about Oregon. It’s more than just about any other team in the country could say. And the ones that haven’t lost a game yet (outside of #1 Georgia) don’t have the quality of wins this Iowa team has.

People both inside and outside the Iowa fanbase seem caught up in how Iowa is winning as if the style makes the wins mean less, as if that style isn’t exactly why this Iowa team is winning even in games that feature more raw talent and athleticism on the other sideline.

Kirk Ferentz has designed this program with interchangeable parts in an ecosystem that works in harmony. The Iowa defense is so stingy because Phil Parker has the leeway to keep his disciplined personnel in their core set and wait for opponents to make mistakes. He has that leeway because the Iowa offense is designed to grind on opponents with a coordinator (driven by the HC) who is OK with playing the field position game for the long term benefits rather than taking the type of quick shots that would make him look better. That all comes together because the head coach has a strategy that value special teams enough to trust an incredible ST coordinator in LeVar Woods who has built his unit into more than a stopgap, but a weapon that is an extension of the offense and defense.

It can be frustrating to watch as a fan, but it’s far more frustrating to watch as an opposing fan, especially for one of those schools with the tradition and high end athletes that feels entitled to the types of runs Iowa is on. The Hawkeyes aren’t the second-most talented team in the country. Physically, they aren’t the second best team.

But they don’t give a sh*t. They’re not playing these games to look the best, they’re playing them to win. They’re going to continue leading the nation in interceptions, as they’ve done since 2017, because they’re going to keep doing what they do and let opponents make mistakes. They’re going to continue winning against backup QBs because they’re going to continue knocking undersized running QBs out and forcing the throwing ones to the sidelines due to their mistakes. The offense is going to continue to look anemic against good defenses and slightly better than competent against bad ones because that’s all they need to do to avoid the types of costly mistakes their own defense uses to win games. And the special teams unit is going to continue to be one of the best in the nation, pinning opponents deep in their own territory to set up that defense and converting kicks into points virtually every time they take the field.

That’s not luck. That’s Iowa football. It’s what it’s been since 1999. Some seasons the personnel is better than others. Sometimes the ball bounces the wrong way and you lose five of 13 games by an average of 3.6 points (2010) and sometimes it bounces the right way and you win five games by one score while only facing two ranked opponents (2015).

That’s football.

It’s no different in Iowa City than it is in Columbus or Tuscaloosa or Athens. Sure the overall talent level is different from school to school, but the same truth holds: the only thing that matters at the end of the day is who won and who lost.

This Iowa team continues to find ways to win. They lead the nation in interceptions (20) and continue to rack up multi-interception games despite the outside noise that they’re getting lucky. They’ve gotten to the backup QB in all but one game this season despite the outside saying Iowa is lucky they aren’t facing a starter the whole game. They’re third in defensive passing efficiency, 4th in scoring defense and 8th in total defense.

Those go hand-in-hand with an offense that is 10th in time of possession (despite being 2nd nationally in defensive TDs and a number of short fields due to an NCAA leading 20 turnovers forced) and 17th in turnovers lost (5). The offense has converted the defense’s 20 takeaways into 85 points scored this season.

Most importantly, the two units, plus of course special teams, have come together to lead the nation in the most important statistic: win percentage. Iowa is 6-0 with wins over two top-10 teams, one on the road and one at home against a top-5 team, as well as a win over a top-20 team and a team (or two?) that may well win their conference. They’re one of three teams in the nation to win three games against AP top-25 teams and one of only two teams to do so while remaining unbeaten. The other is ranked right in front of them.

It hasn’t been a soft schedule, despite what national talking heads or opposing fans want to try and convolute things into. It’s been one of the most difficult first six games of season the Hawkeyes have faced in some time. And they’ve won every one of them.

They also beat the last six teams they played in 2020, extending the current winning streak to 12 games. That’s second in the nation behind only Oklahoma at 14 games. And while Spencer Petras has his warts, he’s been the leader of this team for all 12 of those wins, moving him into 1st place all-time at Iowa for winning percentage as a starting QB at .857, just ahead of Brad Banks at .846 (11-2 as a starter).

Each of those wins surely involved some luck. Just as the two losses that preceded them surely did for the opponent. That can be said of every play of every game of every season for every team. This group of Hawkeyes is simply well-prepared in a system that is well designed to take advantage of those lucky breaks while also maximizing the likelihood their opponents will make mistakes while limiting the opportunities for their own mistakes to turn into points.

It’s not always pretty, but they say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. 6-0, #2 in the nation and fresh off a win over #4 sure looks pretty to me. A return trip to Indianapolis would too.