Leistikow: Insight into Brian Ferentz's play-calling approach for Iowa football
IOWA CITY, Ia. — If, and probably when, the Iowa football team gets into a fourth-down situation in Minnesota territory in this Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. game at TCF Bank Stadium, you likely won’t see Hawkeye coaches scrambling to make a decision.
Because that course of action will already have been made a day earlier, in the coaches' game-plan meetings.
Iowa’s offensive staff brings an orchestrated plan of attack on game days, one that is designed to limit heat-of-the-moment uncertainty.
Coaches and players are on the same page.
“There's never a spur-of-the-moment decision,” Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz explained during the team’s lone bye week. “When you're going for a fourth down in the spur of the moment, you're making a mistake — because you're not prepared. So when we go for it on fourth down, we know we're going for it on fourth down on Friday afternoon.”
A great example popped up during Iowa’s recent 28-17 loss to Wisconsin.
Late in the first quarter of a scoreless game, the Hawkeyes completed a short third-down pass to running back Ivory Kelly-Martin, who lunged to within a yard of the first down. Officials marked him at the Wisconsin 5-yard line, setting up a fourth-and-1 for the Hawkeyes.
Players knew exactly what to do in this particular situation. They rushed to the line of scrimmage. They already knew the play call. Privately, coaches were supremely confident the call was going to result in a touchdown — they had designed this scenario for that exact moment against that particular Wisconsin group.
But there was a hiccup.
As Iowa center Keegan Render prepared to snap the football, the replay official in the press box felt the previous spot needed further review. He buzzed in, and stopped Iowa's hurry-up action.
“So we changed personnel, and we changed the call," Ferentz said. "But we still knew we were going (for the first down)."
This time, with a three-tight end set, Iowa tried to sneak it forward with 6-foot-4 quarterback Nate Stanley. He was ruled short of a first down, and Wisconsin got the ball back — and promptly marched 95 yards for a touchdown.
Instead of 7-0 Iowa, it was 7-0 Wisconsin.
Those are the types of game-turning moments that you’d think would keep offensive coordinators stewing around the clock.
Ferentz, though, said that’s not the case.
"I don't think I've ever second-guessed anything I've done,” the oldest son of Iowa's 20th-year head coach said. “There are, certainly, things I wish in retrospect I would have done differently or called a different play — if one play works, it's probably a good call. If it doesn't work, you probably should have called something else."
There were several key play calls that didn’t work as Ferentz hoped against the Badgers.
A third-and-goal run call from the 2-yard line in the third quarter that lost 4 yards…
Back-to-back incomplete passes after gaining second-and-5 past midfield with a 17-14 lead late in the fourth quarter...
If any of those plays had succeeded as they were drawn up, Iowa probably would have won a crucial Big Ten Conference West Division game.
“You prepare for the moment when the moment comes. The decisions have already been made,” Ferentz reiterated. “You put them in the game, and if you've done your job properly, then things work. If you haven't, then they don't, and you need to go back and evaluate why it went wrong.”
Now, 17 games into his new role since taking over for the retired Greg Davis, Ferentz’s play-calling approach is becoming clearer. We’ve seen more jet sweeps, a greater emphasis on tight-end play, more creativity with (and within) personnel packages and occasional tempo.
But he shared perhaps the most important part of whether he is deemed a successful play-caller or not, and it's simple as could be:
It’s all about succeeding on first-and-10.
What defines success?
“Our number is four yards on first down. If we're at four yards, we're winning,” Ferentz said. “If we're at second-and-6, we feel pretty good about that.”
After Ferentz said that, I dug deeper into the 2018 numbers. I only counted when first-teamers were in the game; I didn’t count kneel-downs, first-and-longs (after penalties) or first-and-goals inside the 10.
And Ferentz’s analysis was spot on.
Iowa’s first two games were marred by poor first-and-10 performance.
Against Northern Illinois: 21 snaps (10 runs, 11 passes) for just 66 yards, a clip of 3.1 yards per play. Iowa got the magic four yards just eight times (38 percent). The offense’s longest of 14 possessions in a 33-7 win spanned 58 yards.
Against Iowa State: 19 snaps (15 runs, four passes) for 52 yards, a dreadful 2.7 yards per play. Only five times (26 percent) did Iowa pick up at least four yards on first-and-10.
Through two weeks, Iowa was 2-0 thanks to stout defense. But the offense was sputtering at 4.55 yards per play overall.
Things have changed since.
Ferentz revealed that he tweaked his approach to get Iowa’s offense off to a faster, crisper start in Week 3 against Northern Iowa.
Against UNI on first-and-10: 31 snaps (18 runs, 13 passes) for 237 yards; a healthy 7.6 per play. Iowa got the magic four-plus yards 20 times (65 percent). And the 545 yards of total offense set a new high in the Brian Ferentz era as coordinator.
Against Wisconsin, it was even better: 24 snaps (15 runs, nine passes) for 193 yards on first-and-10, or 8 yards per call — impressive, considering Iowa got four yards or more 16 times (67 percent, the best yet this season).
In the past two weeks, Iowa has averaged 7.03 yards per play overall. That'll be a winning number in most games.
"If you can get a good blend going on first and second down — a little run, little pass — and you're being efficient throwing the ball and completing those balls and completing them a little further down the field, then that's a positive," Ferentz said. "That's where you see those yards per play jump a little bit.
"If we can keep that going, well, that would be helpful."
So as you soak in each of the next eight Iowa football Saturdays, pay special attention to first-and-10 results and whether they gain four yards or more.
And know that Ferentz and his offensive staff have been devising those specific calls all week long.
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.