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Matchup to Watch: Kirk Ferentz vs. Himself

It’s been a tumultuous three weeks since the Hawks reached 6-0 and to turn it around, Iowa’s head coach will need to be change their approach

NCAA Football: Purdue at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Week 1: Ty Fryfogle vs. Iowa’s corners
Week 2: Charlie Kolar/Chase Allen vs. Iowa’s linebackers
Week 3: Kent State’s corners vs. Iowa’s wide receivers
Week 4: Thomas Pannunzio vs. Tory Taylor
Week 5: Maryland’s offensive line vs. Iowa’s defensive line
Week 6: Jahan Dotson vs. Iowa’s secondary
Week 7: George Karlaftis vs. Iowa’s tackles
Week 8: BYE
Week 9: Jim Leonhard vs. Brian Ferentz

Iowa lost their 4th game in 5 years against Wisconsin with Brian Ferentz as offensive coordinator. Once again, the Hawkeyes struggled to move the ball offensively and gained just 156 total yards, yielded 6 sacks, and 10 tackles for loss.

The #22 Iowa Hawkeyes (6-2, 3-2) now sit in 4th place of the Big Ten West, which is familiar territory this time of year. There’s no other way to define it than a free fall and a loss to the Northwestern Wildcats (3-5, 1-4) would close the door on Iowa’s divisional chances for the 11th time in 12 years of their Big Ten existence.

While the offense has its share of problems that do not reside with Kirk Ferentz, the general mindset does. The head coach is in his own way when it comes to Iowa’s stated goal of winning the Big Ten West.

With a bye week to rejigger Iowa’s offensive approach and playcalling based on alignment, the Hawkeyes passed 18 times out of 19 shotgun snaps after 17 passes lined up in 19 shotgun snaps against Purdue. Down and distance variables certainly apply, but this imbalance (92% pass) does nothing to help anybody in black and gold.

Most concerningly, Kirk redoubled on these efforts saying: “We are fairly predictable and there’s certain formations, all that type of thing. But I’m not too concerned about that really, quite frankly.”

What makes it so frustrating is the predictability does nothing to Iowa’s benefit. Football coaches, Kirk Ferentz included, treat their gameplans and playcalls and general development like state secrets yet Iowa is willing to quite literally show their hole cards in a game of Texas Hold ‘Em nearly every play of every week. Jet sweep was not used with any consistency until desperation mode in the 3rd quarter. As Thad said in the rewatch, Iowa really should be doing everything they can to be getting 4 and 5 yards a carry, which includes a commitment to jet sweep as well as running out of shotgun.

The reason Kirk remains wedded to the predictability is because it has worked in the past. Between 2003 & 2012, Iowa was able to string together multiple NFL draftees along the trenches. 13 guys were selected in those 10 drafts. Between 2013 and 2022, Iowa will have just 6 guys taken should Tyler Linderbaum forgo his senior year. What this creates is an inability to piece NFL caliber linemen together and reliance on good stories to emerge year after year. By my count, just three times since Brandon Scherff & Andrew Donnal were taken in the 2015 NFL draft, the Hawkeyes have only had two drafted linemen along any given line - 2015 (Austin Blyte & James Daniels), 2017 (Daniels & Tristan Wirfs), and 2019 (Wirfs & Linderbaum). Each involved a freshman.

When you have better linemen blocking predictable plays, you have more success. Without them, the Hawkeyes need to invite more unpredictability into their offense.

There are certainly more areas where Kirk’s hubris forces Iowa into frustrating situations but I’ll close with two. Iowa’s incredible success in games where they accumulate 200 or less yards provides a value case for simply ... not gaining yards. But really, it is a losing formula. Though the Hawks are 3-2 in such games since 2017, the rest of the Big Ten is a combined 1-39.

The second, and more concerning, is the coach Kirk Ferentz is going up against. Nobody rallies the troops against the Hawkeyes like Pat Fitzgerald and frankly, nobody feels more unwarrantingly confident against Northwestern than Kirk Ferentz. Yes, Fitz holds a winning record against the Hawks at 9-6 but it is much worse than that: In games where Iowa is favored by 9.5 or more points, the Hawkeyes are winless in six games.

Friggin winless.

All indications are Kirk Ferentz believes he can go into Evanston on Saturday and win by being more “Iowa” than they were the prior week. It simply doesn’t work, especially when they struggled in their previous outing. In the last 6 games where Iowa has scored 10 or less offensive points, they’ve averaged 22.7 points the following week. Take out two blowout Illinois wins and the average drops to 12.3.

So really, the last thing Iowa needs is more of itself. That’s exactly what Northwestern will be expecting.