Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz again emphasizes turnover margin as a key factor. Chad Leistikow/The Register
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Is it time for Iowa to become a pass-first football team?
Kirk Ferentz doesn’t think so.
“Our goal is to be balanced,” the head coach said Tuesday. “It always has been.”
But it’s a question worth examining, considering the fruitless recent state of the Hawkeyes’ running game.
Through five weeks, Iowa is averaging 3.39 yards a carry. That ranks No. 13 out of 14 Big Ten Conference teams entering Saturday’s 11 a.m. homecoming game against Illinois.
If that per-carry average holds — and it can't, right? — it would be the third-worst under Ferentz since his program breakthrough in 2001.
The only two lower marks?
The answers might surprise you: 3.27 yards per carry in 2009; and 2.04 in 2004.
You know what happened in those seasons: 9-0 start in ’09 with an Orange Bowl-winning finish; Big Ten co-championship in ’04, capped by Tate-to-Holloway in the Capital One Bowl.
In other words, running the ball isn’t a Ferentz-era prerequisite to success, even if he wants it to be.
Those national top-10 squads had stout defenses, as Iowa does this year, and were heavily reliant on the pass.
Although the comparison isn’t apples to apples, let’s examine what went right with the passing game in 2004. Because there are enough similarities to 2017 to start the conversation.
True sophomore Drew Tate was the first-year starting quarterback then; true sophomore Nate Stanley is the starter now.
Those Hawkeyes lost two straight September games early in the ’04 season, the second coming in the state of Michigan. Same with this one.
Both offensive lines were thinned by injuries. The unproven wide-receiver groups were led by sure-handed veterans (Ed Hinkel then, Matt VandeBerg now).
It was after that loss at Michigan (30-17) in 2004 that Iowa returned home for an early-October homecoming game and started airing it out.
Tate completed 25 of 36 passes for 340 yards in a 38-16 rout of Michigan State.
The next game (after a bye), Tate went 26-of-39 for 331 yards in a 33-7 thumping of Ohio State.
No doubt, those Hawkeye opponents couldn’t have seen those explosions coming.
The running-back circumstances in 2004 became extenuating, of course. Fifth-stringer Sam Brownlee was eventually the No. 1 guy.
“Yeah, that year we didn't really have much option,” Ferentz said. “… I don't envision us being on that path right now.”
Even with backup James Butler’s injury, Iowa has plenty of capable running backs now, led by Akrum Wadley. But during the program's first 0-2 Big Ten start in nine years, the holes haven’t been there.
And it has a strong-armed quarterback in Stanley that has been much better than some fans are giving him credit for.
Although Stanley has missed several deep balls — Ferentz equates them to long foul balls in baseball — and has had fumbling issues, he’s shown excellent zip and accuracy. His 12 touchdowns to one interception is probably an unsustainable ratio, but he’s made some pretty terrific throws.
The 32-yarder to Nick Easley against the blitz, lobbed perfectly over double coverage at Michigan State, comes immediately to mind.
“You're never going to hit 100 percent of (deep balls). That's probably unrealistic. It's like 3-pointers in basketball,” Ferentz said. “But we'll improve in that area. I've got every reason to think that we will.
“But I think he's done a lot of good things. He's made a lot of really good throws and some tough throws."
Stanley has a yes-sir demeanor, where he’ll do whatever coaches ask him to do — whether that means throw 15 times (as he did against Wyoming) or 40-plus (as he did in rallying Iowa past Iowa State).
I’m not suggesting that offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz junk the run game and install Mike Leach’s Air Raid, especially with the weakest remaining opponent on the schedule on deck.
But I do think it’s obvious that the more the Hawkeyes face stacked-against-the-run defenses, the more a wide-open approach will help.
And I think he’s got the quarterback to do it in Stanley.
“Being able to hit the passes when they’re called,” Stanley said, “will do a lot to help the run game.”
Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley explains how he handles them and what he looks for. Chad Leistikow/The Register
Right now, it’s clear that Iowa has a better chance at getting to desirable second-and-4s through the air than via the ground.
In 2004, Tate would end up averaging 35 pass attempts in his final eight games. Iowa won all eight.
Stanley is gaining trust every week. In averaging 208.6 yards a game, he's shown he can spread the ball around, too. Twelve Hawkeyes have caught passes this season.
"All of us are really impressed and pleased," Ferentz said, "with what he's done so far."
Let's see what more Stanley can do.
His arm just might be best way to help Iowa's running game find its legs.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.