Iowa went for a fourth-and-5 that changed the game against North Texas, a 23-yard TD to Noah Fant. Chad Leistikow/HawkCentral
IOWA CITY, Ia. — By the fourth time Iowa lined up for a fourth-down conversion Saturday, the players were hardly surprised.
“We weren’t really thinking about (a) field goal,” Noah Fant said of the biggest play in the Hawkeyes’ harder-than-it-needed-to-be 31-14 victory over North Texas at Kinnick Stadium. “We trust our coaches a lot. Coach Brian (Ferentz) called in the play and we were like, ‘OK, let’s run it, let’s execute what we’re asked to do.’”
The Hawkeyes (3-0) were facing a fourth-and-5 at the Mean Green 23-yard line, trailing 14-10 in the third quarter. The prudent decision seemed to be to kick the field goal. Miguel Recinos had nailed a 42-yarder through the same uprights in the first half, after all.
But head coach Kirk Ferentz had established on the game’s opening drive that he considered anything inside the 35-yard line to be four-down territory. So his son, offensive coordinator, Brian Ferentz sent in a play that gave sophomore quarterback Nate Stanley a couple of options against a North Texas defense that threw multiple looks at the Hawkeyes.
One option was Fant, a 6-foot-5 tight end.
Fant ran an in route. Stanley had plenty of time to wait for him to come open in the middle of the field. Fant grabbed the pass and turned upfield, carrying a hapless Mean Green defender all the way into the end zone to give Iowa the lead for good.
“It’s a big moment for the offense and gives the whole team a little bit of juice,” Fant said.
“I caught the ball and got vertical and saw I was close to the goal line range and just tried to get in. I wasn’t really focused on him (the dangling would-be tackler), to be honest. I was looking ahead and working on grinding through it.”
Said Stanley: “It was a play that we had an option to beat a couple different coverages. And Noah ran a great route and he took some guys into the end zone with him, so he made a great effort to not only get the first down, but to score on that play.”
The Hawkeyes converted 4 of 5 fourth downs, none bigger than Fant’s touchdown. It was the surest signal yet that things are operating a little differently in Kirk Ferentz’s 19th season at the helm.
On Iowa’s opening possession, facing a fourth-and-3 at the Mean Green 33-yard line, Stanley found Fant on a screen play that picked up seven yards. The Hawkeyes lost an apparent touchdown on that drive when wide receiver Nick Easley fumbled just shy of the goal line.
But they were right back at it on the second drive, calling a timeout ahead of a fourth-and-1 play from the North Texas 12-yard line. The decision was to forego a short field goal and hand the ball to tailback James Butler, who picked up two tough yards running left. That drive ended with a Stanley touchdown pass to T.J. Hockenson.
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Iowa missed on a fourth-down attempt from the North Texas 34-yard line in the second quarter. Stanley had to rush a pass and couldn’t connect with Fant that time.
But the Hawkeyes’ final touchdown came on another fourth-and-1 play late in the game. Freshman tailback Ivory Kelly-Martin burst into the end zone from six yards out.
“I think coach Ferentz is trying to send a message, not just jumpstart us, but, ‘Hey, keep going and push,’” Iowa guard Keegan Render said of the fourth-down faith from above.
“I think it’s just nice to know that, hey, we’ve driven this far. We’re given another chance to keep going and finish it.”
The conversions helped Iowa amass an amazing 40 minutes, 45 seconds in possession time, wearing down the North Texas defense. That was the second-highest total of Ferentz’s tenure.
Easley said he could sense that the Mean Green defense grew deflated with each Iowa fourth down conversion.
“As a competitor, you always want to go for it,” Easley said.
“It’s definitely a confidence booster. We’d like to not be in those situations if we could, move it on the other three downs. But it’s good to be able to do that. Moving the ball on fourth down is a big deal for the offense.”
Kirk Ferentz said his new fourth-down philosophy arose out of an “out-of-season study.” His coaching staff even has a meeting each Thursday at which they discuss clock management and down-and-distance decision-making.
“Part of it is the feel of the game,” Ferentz said. “That particular juncture I just felt like we needed — you're either going to dig in and do something or we were going to keep screwing around here, so I felt like we just had to do something.”
That they did.
Four times — with three touchdowns to show for it.