Iowa lacks an identity. This has been said by posters and commenters here, elsewhere, and by members of the media. And it has been said mostly about the offense.*
Gripes about Iowa's current lack of identity can mostly probably be traced to a desire to return to the halcyon days of 2002-04. Remember? 31-7 record? Three consecutive #8 poll finishes? Blocking kicks left and right?
Blocking kicks. That was fun. Special teams plays like that would seem to loom large for a program that most would agree has a thin margin for error. Ferentz 2.0 (circa and including 2009) was a smaller program's** Jim Tressel. Ferentz 3.0 (current) is, um, a work in progress.
Ferentz Classic was the Frank Beamer of the Midwest. Pressure with four, block kicks all the time, and then who cares what you do on offense? Except in the year where you have a poor man's Michael Vick. Then you go 11-1. Since 2002, Iowa has a 21-3 record in games where it has blocked at least one punt or placekick (see Appendix below). Ten of those twenty-four games happened in the 2002-04 seasons. Iowa's record in those ten games was 10-0. Almost one-third of Iowa's wins during Ferentz's best run featured a blocked kick of some variety. Iowa's last block was a Penn State field goal attempt in 2012, preventing a then-hapless Sam Ficken from possibly putting the Nittany Lions up 41-7 on one of Kinnick's darkest nights.
That said, I want to revisit those ten games from 2002-04, to see how those seasons may have turned out differently without the blocked kicks that have become so rare for Iowa, but before I do, a few caveats: I am aware that correlation does not equal causation. I'm also aware that it is impossible to say how past games would have turned out sans certain events in those games, but I guess we're left with an imperfect model of assuming everything else would have played out the same. Oh well. Given that, and given that this post will probably be taken as a criticism of Ferentz 3.0/current Ferentz, I'm going to try to spin things in the light most favorable to current Ferentz, meaning, for instance, if removing a certain special teams event leaves us with a tie, then I'll assume the Hawks would have won in overtime.*** That said, let's travel to parallel-universe 2002.
September 21, 2002: Happy with his team's total offensive and defensive rebounds after a second-half meltdown the previous week against Iowa State, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz plays punt safe all day against Utah State. Savoring the total domination from scrimmage in the 41-7 win, Ferentz decides that conservative special teams fit in well as a winning formula for his now 3-1 Hawkeyes.
September 28, 2002: Ferentz continues to delight in his team's dominance from scrimmage, and takes a 26-7 lead to halftime over Penn State in Happy Valley. Penn State strikes early in the third quarter on a seven-play, 69-yard drive. Penn State routinely kicks the extra point, with minimal pressure applied by Iowa, and cuts the Hawkeye lead to 26-14. Iowa later scores to up its lead to 33-14, but a flurry of Zack Mills passes and interference calls on Iowa cornerback D.J. Johnson shrink the lead. First to 33-20, with a missed PSU two-point conversion. Then to 33-27. Then, with 1:20 left, Penn State takes a 34-33 lead to which Iowa can't respond.**** The Hawkeyes, now 3-2 overall and 0-1 in the Big Ten, board the plane back to Iowa City with a hard-fought loss to the #12 team in the nation.
October 5, 2002: The warm Iowa City sun beat down on Ferentz's head with about 90 seconds remaining in the first half of his Iowa team's tussle with Purdue. The Hawkeyes were coming off a deflating loss at Penn State, and trailed the Boilermakers 14-3. Opposing head coach Joe Tiller lined up his squad for a 22-yard field goal. A chip shot. But Ferentz knew Tiller's wily ways, and instructed his men to not rush the kick, fearing a fake and a three-score deficit at halftime. Purdue kicker Berin Lacevic split the uprights, and Ferentz prepared to rally his team from the 17-3 halftime deficit. Iowa's previously high-powered offense continued to sputter, exchanging routine punts with the Boilers, until late in the third quarter, when Brad Banks zipped a quick smash route to tight end Dallas Clark, who leaped over a tackler and sprinted 95 yards to paydirt, to shrink the Purdue lead to 17-10. But Purdue backup QB Brandon Kirsch had all the answers in the fourth quarter, leading a 13-play, 89-yard drive to extend Purdue's lead to 24-10 early in the quarter, and a quick 67-yard march in six plays to give Purdue an insurmountable 31-10 advantage with about six minutes to play. Iowa works Purdue's prevent defense for yardage late, and Banks hooks up with Clark again on fourth and goal with a minute to go in a half-empty stadium to close the final margin to 31-17, but the loss sends Iowa to 0-2 in Big Ten play, and 3-3 overall.
January 1, 2003: Ferentz basks in the warm aftermath of a hard-fought 23-17 Iowa win over Auburn in the Capital One Bowl. After heartbreaking early losses to Iowa State, Penn State, and Purdue, his Hawkeyes rallied for seven straight wins in a fashion only described as methodical and crushing. The final record of 10-3 overall and 6-2 in the Big Ten gives Iowa its first ten-win season since 1991. Is the best yet to come?
September 13, 2003: A rainy day in Ames, Iowa. Under his rain hood, Ferentz hears what seems like five mouths chewing gum. Echoing. Beneath the noise, Ferentz serenely notes the early-third-quarter score: Iowa 20, Iowa State 7. Sensing the Cyclones' offense is outmanned as they prepare to punt again, Ferentz removes safety/assassin Sean Considine from his punt unit and instructs to set up for a safe return. Two exchanged punts later, the decision to wait out the Cyclones pays off, as Iowa intercepts an Austin Flynn pass, setting up a field goal to extend the lead to 23-7. Iowa later tacks on a 33-yard Marcus Schnoor touchdown run, and lets the reserve defense play out the 30-21 win.
October 4, 2003: Even Ferentz was getting swept up in the emotion of this one. His 4-1 Hawkeyes had fought from an early 14-0 deficit to lead at halftime over #9 Michigan. It was 20-20 in the third quarter. Something didn't sit right with Ferentz, whose close-to-the-vest, always-in-punt-safe style was starting to get some national love. He looked across the field at a sideline full of studs--Braylon Edwards, Jason Avant, John Navarre, Chris Perry, Marlin Jackson--but Lloyd was using a rugby-punting Garrett Rivas as a punter??? Suspecting the most nefarious, even from the straight-playing Carr, Ferentz ordered a full punt safe. The teams continued to exchange punts, and Ferentz's patience paid off, yet again, when Nathan Chandler javelined a 31-yard bomb to a streaking Ramon Ochoa, who held on over the pylon to give Iowa a 27-20 lead with about five minutes to go. Navarre answered quickly, though, heaving a 41-yard post route to Edwards, capping a 43-second, 86-yard drive to tie the game.*****After an Iowa punt, Navarre could not move the Wolverines past Iowa's 44-yard line. In overtime, Nate Kaeding outlasted Rivas in a field goal derby. Because Nate Kaeding. The 36-33 win lifted Iowa to 5-1 overall, and 1-1 in the Big Ten.
October 26, 2003: Ferentz sips his Sunday-morning decaf over The Cedar Rapids Gazette sports page. The paper recounts how his Hawkeyes managed to run out the last three minutes of a tense 19-14 win over 2-6 Penn State. "Mmm," Ferentz grunts approvingly. "That's how you win a football game."
January 15, 2004: The NFL rumor mill circles around Ferentz, whose last two Iowa teams have each gone 10-3 without the benefit of any of the "gimmicks" that so many college teams employ.
October 30, 2004: Iowa leads Illinois 14-7, early in the third quarter at a windy Memorial Stadium. Illinois boots a routine punt into the stiff breeze, which Iowa returner Walner Belleus allows to bounce dead near midfield. The Hawkeyes, by sheer force of will, work their way down the field, and a five-yard Drew Tate scramble puts Iowa up 21-7. The teams switch ends, but Illinois cannot use the wind to its advantage until an eye-gouging 17-play, 65-yard drive, ending with a Jon Beutjer touchdown pass with 49 seconds left in the 21-13 Iowa victory. With the win, the resilient Hawkeyes move to 6-2 overall and 4-1 in the Big Ten, heading into a home contest with Purdue.
November 6, 2004: It has been seven years since Iowa has beaten Purdue. Ferentz takes a deep breath of cool, mid-afternoon, late Fall air. His Hawkeyes have jumped out to a 7-0 lead on their first drive. Purdue--led by the wily Tiller, Ferentz's nemesis--has answered by edging into field goal range at Iowa's 15 yard line. Purdue kicker Ben Jones hammers the ball into the net behind the goalposts, splitting them to cut Iowa's lead to 7-3. Two Boilermaker fumbles--one by Kirsch, and one by punt-fumbling extraordinaire Dorien Bryant--help Iowa extend its lead to a solid 17-3. "Patience, Kirk," Ferentz tells himself, oddly in the third person, realizing the game can't be won on any one play. A 48-yard Kirsch pass in the second quarter trims the lead to 17-10. Iowa takes that lead into the second half, and misses a chance to extend it, as Kyle Schlicher misses a 47-yard field goal early in the third. A Tate interception, returned to the Iowa 20 puts the Hawkeyes' backs against the wall. Iowa's defense stands tall, though, and holds Purdue to a routine field goal, a 27-yarder, which trims Iowa's lead to 17-13. An Iowa three-and-out commences further implosion by Iowa, as a Kirsch pass to Brandon Ingraham puts the Boilermakers up 20-17 late in the third. Schlicher knots the game at 20-20 early in the fourth, and adds another boot to put Iowa up 23-20 with just under eight minutes to go. Any outside hope Iowa has of a Big Ten championship rests on these eight minutes. In a very Ferentz-ian moment, Tiller calls off his own field goal block call, and Schlicher adds three more to give Iowa a 26-20 lead, with now only 1:20 to play. Kirsch rallies the troops, though, and hits Taylor Stubblefield for a 10-yard TD pass with :15 to play, breaking Hawkeye hearts 27-26, like Greg Frey and Bobby Olive of Ohio State did by that score in 1990. The loss drops Iowa to 6-3 overall and 4-2 in the Big Ten.
January 1, 2005: A gritty Outback Bowl defeat****** to Georgia, 24-20, ends Iowa's 2004 campaign at 8-4 overall and 6-2 in the Big Ten.
Flash forward to 2014, Iowa is rolling under Head Coach Dana Holgorsen.... Kidding. The point to this trip down anti-memory lane is this: I think that lot of the dissonance/lack of identity of Ferentz 3.0 teams are apparent in the special teams approach. The overall game management of the scrimmage units seems to be based on Iowa not being a team that can run-and-gun and out-athlete other major teams, but rather being a team that hangs around and wins the tight ones. Well, the parallel universe version of 2002-04 shows that, if Iowa really wants to be the little guy that makes it to the top again, it will have to resume winning the third phase. 10-3, 10-3, and 8-4 is certainly nothing to sneeze at, but it gets Iowa maybe one top ten finish, versus the three it netted with 11-2, 10-3, and 10-2. And oh, the memories those games and seasons gave us. On special teams, I would like to see a Ferentz Classic reboot.******* Instead of the God-can-we-contain-a-fake setup used now, find a way to pressure the spread punting alignment. Routinely rush everyone on field goals.******** I would love some discussion on whether this is to some degree a strategic choice Iowa can make now, but whatever they did, Ferentz Classic's staff had it mastered. One more win per year can do a lot on a twelve-game schedule.
*- And rightfully so.
**- Smaller than Ohio State, at least.
***- Couldn't really think of a place to work this in, but speaking of overtime, NOTHING embodies post-Classic Ferentz more to me than being in some variant of field goal safe on Ohio State's Rose Bowl-clinching field goal in 2009 (see 3:38 mark at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6F0dQEgUDeQ). I know we're just glad to be able to contain fakes now, but there is no excuse for not sending the house on that one.
****- Oddly, the still-preserved ESPN game recap must have had no way of recording the blocked-and-housed PAT, so its play-by-play reflects Iowa winning 40-35 in overtime, after trailing 35-33 at the end of regulation (http://scores.espn.go.com/ncf/playbyplay?gameId=222710213&period=0).
*****- Remember THAT Michigan? They were scary. Not that I would trade away the 2009-11 wins over them, but man, it was fun when Iowa beat them when they were still MICHIGAN.
******- In spite of giving Ferentz the benefit of the doubt on things like this, Iowa did block two punts, including scoring directly on one of them, in the Capital One Bowl, so that likely turns the Tate-to-Holloway game into an L against a team strikingly similar to Georgia in scoring offense, defense, and record.
*******- Would I also like a more coherent offense? Sure.
********- See footnote [***].
APPENDIX (i.e., a table of Iowa kick-blocking research I compiled; stats on this are scarce, especially pre-2003)