Leistikow: Iowa fans are right — Greg Davis' offense is stale

Chad Leistikow,

My inbox is bursting, and not just because I’m back-logged coming off a vacation.

The angst surrounding Iowa football is at a season high, and it seems to be growing — even coming off of a bye week.

The common complaint in a high percentage of emails? A perceived lack of creativity in offensive coordinator Greg Davis’ schemes.

Fans are justifiably concerned.

Their Hawkeyes, with a fifth-year senior all-Big Ten Conference quarterback in C.J. Beathard, have been held to 231, 283 and 236 yards in their last three home games — humbling losses to North Dakota State, Northwestern and Wisconsin.

Offensive coordinator Greg Davis watches his team during warm ups prior to kickoff against Miami (Ohio) on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

A sampling of the email comments:

“Our offense is malaise in strategy and lack(s) playmakers, but the problem truly lies … in Davis being average at best.”

“There is absolutely nothing exciting about Iowa football anymore. Even on their 12-0 run in 2015, the style … was lethargic and slow.”

“Iowa fans cannot take 10 more years of this stale and old football product.”

That last comment is a swipe at Kirk Ferentz’s recently signed contract extension that will pay him nearly $50 million plus bonuses through the 2025 season.

When the paychecks are that big — and Davis’ $625,000-a-year salary is double what previous coordinator Ken O’Keefe made in his final season ($313,200 in 2011) — the scrutiny ramps up. It’s logical to expect a bigger payoff for a bigger investment.

Yet the passing offense hasn't yielded much of a return. That's Davis' department, with offensive line coach Brian Ferentz the run-game coordinator. Iowa averages an abysmal 6.1 yards per attempt in Big Ten play (tied with Maryland for 10th in the league), compared with 7.2 for opponents. Iowa’s 11.7 yards per completion overall rank 85th nationally.

Explosion and innovation are lacking.

Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard averaged just 4.6 yards per passing attempt in the Hawkeyes' 17-9 loss to Wisconsin.

Hungry-for-excitement Hawkeye fans cheered when Iowa failed on a fake field-goal attempt in last year’s opener against Illinois State. At least Kirk Ferentz tried something, they thought.

The next week, Ferentz did it again — and failed — on a fake field goal on the final play of the first half at Iowa State. Iowa won the game anyway, and fans fell in love with the fresh concept of “New Kirk” on the way to a historic 12-2 season.

Aside from a few reverse runs, the extent of Iowa's 2016 exotics are a flea-flicker pass to Jerminic Smith (in Week 1) and a failed receiver pass-option involving Riley McCarron vs. Wisconsin (in Week 8).

And that’s how comments like these get launched toward my inbox:

“Iowa fans have a right to be entertained instead of bored to death.”

Last week at a news conference, Davis reminded media how good Iowa’s red-zone offense is — 25-for-27 on getting points once reaching the opponent’s 20-yard line.

But what Davis conveniently left out was that Iowa has only scored, period, on 22 of its last 82 drives — an ugly 26.8 percent rate of return. The defense has played better, but it's hard to win football games when scoring in one of every four possessions.

Also last week, Davis mentioned the losses of graduated seniors Tevaun Smith and Henry Krieger Coble slowing the pass-game progress. Eight games in — and 10 months since those guys last wore the black-and-gold in a game — and that excuse sounds as stale as the offense looks.

Still, there’s more football to be played before a final judgment on the 2016 Hawkeye season and Davis’ job status is rendered.

One of the reasons Ferentz gets paid the big bucks — his $4.5 million in base pay ranks No. 10 nationally among public schools, according to USA TODAY’s recently-published salary database — is that he’s typically gotten his best teams to play their best football in November.

After the 17-9 loss to Wisconsin on Oct. 22, Ferentz pointed out that his 2008 team reached its bye week with a 5-3 record — same as this year’s. Those 2008 Hawkeyes responded with a memorable finish, including an upset of No. 3 Penn State and a 55-0 thrashing of Minnesota on their way to a 9-4 record.

“The one thing I always loved about that team is the way they improved,” Ferentz said.

Davis hinted last week that there could be some new offensive wrinkles ahead — maybe more hurry-up; maybe Akrum Wadley and LeShun Daniels Jr. on the field as the same time; maybe even Desmond King on offense.

I have a feeling that if Iowa (5-3, 3-2) did all of those things Saturday at No. 23 Penn State (6-2, 4-1) and still lost, a segment of the fan base would be satisfied.

And if (7½-point underdog) Iowa does nothing new and wins by playing classic Ferentz football, a segment of the fan base still wouldn't be.

But one thing everyone — fans, coaches and media — should be able to agree upon: The Hawkeyes have to demonstrate urgency and a willingness to try something new, starting this week in Happy Valley.

If they don’t, the angst will just be beginning.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.