Analysis: Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz faces fourth-down choices, and gets them right in 26-20 win

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz faced a season’s worth of fourth-down decisions in a single game Friday.

Four times, his offense was in position to either send Keith Duncan out for a field-goal attempt or try to gain a few yards to keep a potential touchdown drive alive. Each time, Ferentz paused to think about the best course of action. And give him credit, because he made the right decisions to produce 13 points in a 26-20 victory over Nebraska at Kinnick Stadium.

“Everyone has an opinion, right?” said Ferentz, who should know. He’s been making calls like that for 22 seasons as Hawkeye head coach. He knows they’re among the most visible actions a football coach can take on game days.

And, even though Ferentz opted to attempt field goals in three of the four instances Friday, he generally has become more aggressive as the years have gone on, relying more on analytics and the opinions of his coaches than his natural tendency to play it safe.

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“To the credit of the staff, they've been working on me for about six, seven years now. I'm starting to get worn down in that department,” Ferentz said. “A little bit more open to risk-taking, if you want to call it that.”

Let’s call it that. Let’s also examine each of Friday’s fourth-down dilemmas.

Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz celebrates with Mekhi Sargent after a third-quarter touchdown Friday against Nebraska. Sargent scored after Ferentz elected to go for it on fourth-and-2 from the Cornhuskers' 16-yard line. The play was successful and Iowa went on to win 26-20.

1. Iowa fourth-and-3 at Nebraska's 15-yard line, 3:52 left in the first half, leading 10-6. The Hawkeyes had used 11 plays to move 55 yards at this point after the Cornhuskers had converted a pair of field goals to eat into what was once a 10-0 lead. But it was an ugly drive, when even a Spencer Petras quarterback sneak barely picked up the yard needed to convert the initial first down.

Running back Tyler Goodson had been stuffed for a two-yard loss. Wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette awkwardly fumbled the ball out of bounds at the end of a 16-yard gain. The Hawkeyes picked up their final first down thanks to a fortunate Nebraska pass-interference penalty on a play that did not look like it was going to be successful. Iowa felt lucky just to be at the 15 when all was said and done. Plus, a field goal would push the lead back to seven, which is what ultimately happened.

Said Ferentz: “When you're kind of sputtering, my mindset is a little bit more like, ‘We all want to go for it. We haven't played well the last seven snaps. All of a sudden, we're going to convert a fourth-and-4?’ A lot of it is how you're feeling at that time.”

2. Iowa fourth-and-2 at the Nebraska 16, midway through the third quarter trailing 20-13. This was the Hawkeyes’ best drive of the game, and it came immediately after the Cornhuskers had taken their only lead. Goodson had already rushed for 32 yards on this sequence. Petras had converted a third-and-8 with a 16-yard pass to Nico Ragaini. A field goal would have felt deflating. Ferentz rolled the dice. Petras fired a pass to tight end Sam LaPorta for five yards. Iowa got its touchdown three plays later.

Said Petras: “There’s a big chart that they have upstairs as to what statistically is the best thing to do. If they want to go for it, then let’s go for it. Let’s go. At that point, I do my best to try to get us the first down. (The play was part of Iowa’s) quick game. He had a really good catch. I threw the ball a little behind him. … They were playing a lot of zone in our empty (backfield) stuff. He was able to find a little hole there.”

3. Iowa fourth-and-5 at the Nebraska 30-yard line as the third quarter expired, tied 20-20. Nebraska coach Scott Frost might have made a mistake here. There was an 11 mph wind coming out of the northwest, which would have impeded a Duncan field-goal attempt if Frost had called timeout in the final seconds of the quarter. Instead, Iowa turned around and Ferentz decided to let Duncan try a 48-yard field goal with the wind at his back. He booted it through with plenty of room to spare. It proved to be the game-winning score.

The Hawkeyes had gone 27 yards in six plays when they encountered their first third down of the drive, needing eight yards. The play call was exceptionally conservative, a handoff to Mekhi Sargent up the middle that gained three yards. It almost seemed like Ferentz was already playing for a field goal there, to regain the lead heading into the final 15 minutes. You can certainly quibble with the third-down play call, but kicking the field goal, especially once Iowa got the wind, was an easy choice.

Said Duncan: “The mindset there is, ‘Attack the opportunity.’” He did.

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4. Iowa fourth-and-2 at Nebraska's 32 with 2:07 left, leading 26-20. Iowa had traveled 32 yards in seven plays but again couldn’t convert on a run when faced with its first third down. This time, Ferentz sent his offense out on fourth down, but only as a ruse, trying to draw the Cornhuskers offside and pick up a free first down that might have allowed the Hawkeyes to run out the clock on a victory. Nebraska didn’t bite.

Duncan has never made a 51-yarder, but he was an all-American last year and was 4-for-4 in this game, still with the wind at his back. A fifth field goal would have sealed the win, and Duncan looked like he had plenty of leg on his 48-yarder going the same direction. This time, Duncan said he didn’t hit the football cleanly and it wound up bouncing off the crossbar before falling into the end zone. It was inches away from being good, certainly a risk worth taking. Iowa’s defense sealed the win a minute later by forcing an Adrian Martinez fumble.

Said Ferentz: “A lot of it is how you feel. Going back to fourth-and-2 (in the third quarter), we had a little something going there. Gives you more confidence to go for it.”

When Iowa’s offense was humming, which was rare Friday, Ferentz showed faith and was rewarded. But when it was a slog just to move the ball, he turned things over to his all-American kicker to be sure to have something to show for drives into Nebraska territory. That worked twice as well.

There will be second-guessing either way for a coach in that position. But Ferentz got it right Friday, and Iowa got the win.

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.