Kirk Ferentz talked to the assembled media Tuesday. Here's what we learned. As always, transcript courtesy of Hawkeye Nation.
Monday's depth chart showed Akrum Wadley as the second-string tailback, presumably in the absence of junior Jordan Canzeri, who has been sidelined with a high ankle sprain for three weeks. But Ferentz said Tuesday that Canzeri has "a chance" of making it to Saturday's game at Minnesota. High ankle sprains are not typically three-week injuries, especially for a guy who relies on cuttiing back as much as Canzeri does, but he's saying there's a possibility nonetheless.
Ditto that for tight end George Kittle, who hasn't played much on offense but was crucial on special teams.
Iowa had struggled with the running game in September, when redshirt freshman Sean Welsh was at left guard and junior Austin Blythe played center. When right guard Jordan Walsh went down injured against Indiana, it forced Iowa to move Blythe to left guard and insert the awesomely-named Tommy Gaul at center. The running game came to life.
Now Walsh is healthy, and Blythe has shifted to left guard as an apparent replacement for Welsh (who is now listed as the backup right guard, so this likely isn't injury-related). And Iowa ran wild with that lineup against Northwestern. Expect it again this week:
Q. When the season first started you might have not have pictured Tommy Gaul at center and Austin Blythe at left guard going in the ninth game of the season?
COACH FERENTZ: You never know how things are going to go. I've said repeatedly: For us to have a good season we have to have some good stories. And Tommy I think is unfolding as one of the better stories we've had. And Tommy's always done a good job. He's done it in a very‑‑ almost a quiet fashion, if you will.
He's a quality guy. Solid in every regard. And then the big thing is when he got to the moment of truth he got his chance against Indiana, and he did a heck of a job. His preparation really showed up on film and he's done a nice job ever since he's played there. In some ways I think it steadied us a bit and it's been really good.
The steadiness quotient can't be undersold here. Welsh clearly has the capability of being a top interior lineman for Iowa, but he had neither the experience nor the consistency to make the Hawkeyes' run game effective. You can't use Brandon Scherff's blocks that often if the left guard is letting tacklers through, and that was happening frequently enough to stop Iowa's offense. With a wall of Scherff and Blythe on the left, that's simply not happening, and Gaul's emergence is the only reason that's a possibility.
It also helps that Blythe played guard as a freshman and is comfortable in that role:
Q. Austin said other than what hand he puts on the ground, there's not really much difference in the position. Is he underplaying what he's done to play three positions?
COACH FERENTZ: Some guys do it really well, some others. Some guys have good position flexibility. I think in his case he's played a lot of football here.
And I guess to answer your question, probably my answer would be no, only because when he jumped in at center last year, he looked like he had been doing that for 10 years, which he hadn't. So he's got a very‑‑ I guess he adopts to things or he's very adept at adapting to things. That's a mouthful. But anyway he kind of moves around without any problem. Doesn't seem to really affect him a great deal.
Blythe was good at chipping tackles and getting to linebackers. He's even better at sealing those tackles and leaving the second-level headhunting for someone else.
The Process Story
So, just what happened in the two weeks between Iowa's horrendous offensive performance against Maryland and the juggernaut we saw against Northwestern? Ferentz said...[sighs]:
Q. What was your focus, your mission, your directive, to get the offense the way you wanted it after the Maryland game?
COACH FERENTZ: The biggest thing was‑‑ I know you guys get tired of hearing me say it‑‑ but I keep going back to execution. But to me it was as simple as the three things I kept harping on are mentioning vocalizing publicly and behind closed doors, it's just hard to be a good football team if you don't tackle well. If you have a lot of self‑inflicted wounds, major penalties, and if you turn the ball over, you do those three things in any conference game, it's not realistic to think you're going to win.
And we tackled a little bit better Saturday and that was good to see. We still have some room for improvement there. Our ball security was much better. And again just avoiding those‑‑ I say penalties. Negative yards plays offensively. You put yourself under a lot of pressure when you get those things.
And when you got an eraser, a guy who can run down the field or make four guys miss with the ball in his arm, that's a little bit different deal. But we're typically not wired that way.
So for us execution is really important whether it's the run, pass, whatever it may be.
The question was how the offense improved so much. Ferentz answered that our tackling was better. I don't know why we even bother sometimes.
Yes, Iowa's three turnovers against Maryland were not ideal, but they weren't the culprit for seven three-and-out series. Yes, Iowa was penalized seven times and could not stay on schedule offensively, but it was playcalling as much as execution to blame. Yes, Iowa did not execute well on offense, but the offense Iowa ran against Maryland was quite clearly not the offense it ran against Northwestern.
Which led to the real question: Just where was Greg Davis Saturday?
Q. Did Coach Davis call the plays against Northwestern?
COACH FERENTZ: This past weekend, you're talking about? He's called them ever since he got here. Did you hear something I didn't hear? Was it someone from above calling the plays? (Laughter) psychic. Rosie the Fortune Teller. That's good.
I liked this question a lot. I didn't ask it, but wish I did. It was the rumor of the weekend.
I tried to explain to everyone what I was seeing on the Iowa sideline. Brian Ferentz is the OL coach. He's not involved in the offensive huddles on the sidelines, not usually. He wasn't at all on Saturday. He did talk to Rudock in pregame and did have some sort of playcard. My guess there is that he went over the "check with me" runs that Iowa has embedded in its offense. They do that a lot.
I didn't notice Kirk Ferentz involved in the offensive huddle anymore than he has been. I noticed nothing different on the sidelines as far as protocol goes. There was nothing visible that led me to believe that OC Greg Davis didn't call the plays this weekend. I'm certain he did. It's just Iowa's offense executed, and so, no, it couldn't be Davis' playcalling, right?
So, everyone seems fairly convinced that Brian Ferentz is about to become Iowa's offensive coordinator, taking it away from this horizontal bullshit and back to its run-run-play action roots. Brian Ferentz was holding a playcard for most of the game, which struck many as odd. When coupled with the change in offensive philosophy everyone with two eyeballs saw, it became an apparent audition for Brian Ferentz: 2015 playcaller.
But Morehouse is right: Ferentz didn't appear to be actually calling the plays, which would be signaled to the team by (typically) Bobby Kennedy, D.J. Hernandez and one of the backups. Could Iowa be experimenting with a sideline check on audibles? It would make sense, given that every audible called this season has been a stretch play. Could it be a change in the offensive line's blocking scheme? Doubtful, and not apparent to anyone I've talked to; Iowa does what Iowa does, and that means zone blocking and white bread pass protect.
I don't know. Maybe Lil' Ferentz just thought it would look cool. Maybe he accidentally forgot to leave his menu on the table at Denny's following his pregame breakfast and was still carrying it around in the early afternoon. Maybe Kirk is just planting things to screw with us now.
Maybe Ken O'Keefe is in the booth.
That's probably it.
Get Off My Lawn Moment of the Week
Kirk Ferentz: Your thoughts on NCAA punting rules, for the nineteenth time?
Q. Punt return seems to struggle at times. How much has that been on blocking and how much has been on returning‑‑
COACH FERENTZ: It's both. It's both. And it's getting more and more challenging. I think college punt rules are totally screwed up, quite frankly. So it's just getting more and more challenge. If you have Deion Sanders back there, you've got a better chance. But with just the free release and all the stuff you see, that's my personal commentary. I hate college punting but nobody cares.
Let's just stop it there and move on to the next quest--oh God, really?
COACH FERENTZ: Just that you can snap the ball. Everybody runs down the field. Nobody has to block. Nobody has to wait for the ball to get kicked. It's just‑‑ what it's morphed into is not really my cup of tea. But again I'm about in the three percent of a hundred. So it would be like 97 percent the other direction.
Go figure, a circumstance where nobody has to block is not Kirk Ferentz's cup of tea. OK, we got that out of the wa--seriously?
Q. How does the NFL do it, how different?
COACH FERENTZ: Have a couple of guys go down until the ball is kicked. Kind of more of a sport that way. But anyway...
Kirk also probably wants a two-minute warning, just to remind him the game is almost over and he should stop huddling.
Look, he's right to a certain extent: College punt rules ARE screwed up. Everyone's eligible and can take off at the snap, so if you don't cover guys, fakes are really easy. It makes punt coverage more like matchup man-to-man defense in basketball than anything resembling football, and teams have exploited it repeatedly against Iowa.
But Iowa doesn't exploit it back. We discussed it briefly with Smart Football, mGoBlog and some other people during Michigan's September meltdown (mGo's noodling on this subject is must-read if you're at all interested in punting, and you're presumably an Iowa fan, so you're probably so inclined):
@edsbs @mgoblog @HS_BHGP this anti-spread/shield punt thing is like a litmus test for backwards thinking considering the rules and results— Chris B. Brown (@smartfootball) September 22, 2014
And Chris is exactly right. The shield punt coverage now utilized by 90% of college football programs makes a lot more sense in the context of current college punt rules than the standard, 10-guys-on-the-line "hurricane" punt formation used elsewhere. Iowa broke Northwestern's for a punt block last week, but it's generally really difficult to do, and it gets players in proper position to distract the punt return team and limit return yardage.
Iowa, of course, uses the old punt formation. When mGo's reporter asked Brady Hoke why he doesn't go to the spread/shield, the response was something like "I don't like it" and an armpit scratch, and I'm doubting we'd get much more from Ferentz (or Saban, or other coaches still using the pro setup).
So, in sum: The rule sucks. But the rule is the rule, and we've failed to adapt beyond "I hate college punting but nobody cares."