Leistikow: Iowa's ideal offensive approach, as explained by Brian Ferentz
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Whether he meant to or not, Brian Ferentz perfectly and simply peeled back the curtain Tuesday about how the Iowa football program approaches moving the football.
You see, It's not always about ... moving the football.
The third-year offensive coordinator’s explanation might be unsatisfactory to some. It might seem too conservative in today’s fast-paced college game. But it’s an approach that the Hawkeye program has used to accumulate 152 wins in 20 seasons under his father, head coach Kirk Ferentz..
The bells and whistles change.
(Brian Ferentz revealed his playbook has 23 personnel groupings.)
The names change.
(New contributors at various positions need to emerge to replenish the production of NFL-bound tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson.)
The philosophy doesn’t.
And it’s probably important that all of us on the outside — the fans and media — better understand what the Hawkeyes aim to do on any given Saturday.
Cue, Brian Ferentz.
“The role of the offense is very simple,” he said. “We need to do whatever it takes for our football team to win.”
OK, that's mainly coach-speak.
Fortunately, Ferentz quickly transitioned into specifics.
“No. 1, we need to stop the run. That’s not our department.
“No. 2, we need to run the ball. That is our department.
“No. 3, we’ve got to play great special teams. We’ve got to cover kicks. Again, not our department.”
“But the interesting thing about offense,” Ferentz said, “is what you do offensively directly affects the other two phases; more so than the other two phases can affect what we do.”
In other words …
“We need to protect our defense and keep them out of bad positions. That means we need to protect the football. We need to change field position,” Ferentz said. “And we need to score as many points as we can with the opportunities we have.”
That’s it, right there.
The offense’s main objective is to make sure the defense keeps the opponent as far away from the end zone as possible. That means forcing drives of 70-plus yards; 80-plus would be better. The kicking game obviously has a role in this effort, too, which is why there's legit buzz about Iowa bringing in a graduate-transfer punter in June.
OK. Makes sense. Right?
Still ... it's hard to get jazzed about the play-it-safe approach when you size up the national statistics year after year. Even when it has two potential first-round NFL Draft tight ends, Iowa's offense really never takes off. Only once out of 20 seasons under Kirk Ferentz has Iowa had a dynamic offense, and that was with a Heisman Trophy runner-up quarterback in 2002.
MORE OFFENSE TALK: The complex challenge of being Iowa's quarterback
... AND THE DEFENSE: D.J. Johnson looks to be next 'cash' player
Back to today's numbers.
In Brian Ferentz’s two years as offensive coordinator, Iowa’s total offense has ranked 117th (in 2017) and 92nd (in 2018) out of 130 FBS teams.
In yards per play, the rankings are 108th and 91st.
But before ragging on the offensive approach, consider the numbers Iowa professes to care about the most.
Wins: The Hawkeyes are 17-9 with Ferentz as offensive coordinator, including 2-0 in bowl games. They've been competitive until the final minutes in 24 of the 26 games (an eight-day 2017 stretch at Wisconsin and against Purdue being the exceptions).
Points: Iowa’s national ranking in scoring offense was a respectable 66th in 2017 and 44th in 2018 (the 31.2 points per game was the program's best since 37.2 in 2002).
So, in that sense, the Hawkeyes’ offense is finding ways to pounce on points and protect the defense. It's doing what it tries to do.
But could it do more?
That’s the hope, of course, as it should be every offseason. Now's the time to find problem areas and improve them.
The pass game should be better, with Nate Stanley at the helm in Year 3 at quarterback.
"A really good feeling to have him out there under center," Ferentz said.
The run game needs to be better. The Hawkeyes' stated offensive bread and butter has sputtered in Ferentz's two years as coordinator. Iowa was 104th nationally in yards per carry in 2017 (3.76) and 94th in 2018 (3.95).
Those paltry numbers have been a hot topic in spring interviews. Yards per carry here should at least hover around 4.5.
"It's really simple. We need to block better," Ferentz said. "Certainly, we need to run the ball better. But the more we block, the more yards we are going to make."
Again, leaning on simplicity.
But there is one layer of complexity that should be understood, too. Iowa's goal to be "multiple" on offense — having the ability to change from week to week, from down to down, based on what the opposing defense is presenting.
The Big Ten Conference's West Division is there for the taking in 2019. Iowa has the veteran quarterback, the offensive line, the pass rush and the defensive reputation to earn a 13th game at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis in early December.
Getting there will take week-to-week successes — as Iowa defines it — from the Brian Ferentz offense.
"We need to be flexible enough to rise to the occasion," Ferentz said, "regardless of what we're tasked to do."
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.