If the Iowa Hawkeyes are going to have a special 2019 football season, they’ll need to find a new way against old rivals.
For all the (justified) optimism surrounding this team, here’s a statistic that packs a splash of cold reality.
Over the past three seasons, in which Iowa’s overall record is a respectable 25-14, Kirk Ferentz is 0-11 against the current coaches at Northwestern, Penn State, Purdue and Wisconsin.
That’s almost hard to believe, considering that Ferentz is 11-0 over three years against Iowa State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Michigan and Ohio State.
For the purposes of the tough conversation we’re about to have, let’s narrow the focus to Iowa’s three Big Ten West Division rivals (Northwestern, Purdue and Wisconsin) that have caused the most recent trouble
If Iowa can’t reverse this stained recent history, it won’t meet its goal of returning to Indianapolis for the first time since 2015.
At the recently completed Big Ten Media Days in Chicago, I interviewed the three West coaches in question: Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald (3-0 against Iowa since 2016, including two wins in Kinnick Stadium as a touchdown-plus underdog), Purdue’s Jeff Brohm (2-0 against Iowa since entering the Big Ten) and Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst (3-0, as you probably know).
This isn't a fun subject. But let's tackle this together.
Recent wins vs. Iowa: 38-31 (Iowa City, 2016); 17-10 in overtime (Evanston, 2017); 14-10 (Iowa City, 2018).
In a nutshell: Iowa couldn’t overcome six sacks and Austin Carr in 2016, then dropped the ball (literally) in overtime in 2017. Last year’s loss became the flashpoint of the Noah Fant snap-count conversation and fan-base frustration.
Fitzgerald says: “When you play the Hawkeyes, you’re going to have to earn it. We’ve been fortunate to have earned it a couple of times.
“I joke that stats are for losers, but trust me, I look at it. Typically, it comes down to turnovers. I think back to last year’s game, a one-score game, and we had the two big turnovers late in the game.”
The one thing Iowa needs to fix: rush defense.
For whatever reason, Iowa’s normally stingy run defense has sprung a leak against the Wildcats.
Check out Northwestern’s remarkably consistent numbers from the last three Iowa box scores: 42 rushes, 198 yards in 2016; 46 rushes, 147 yards in 2017; 46 rushes, 184 yards in 2018.
That's unacceptable for Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker, who no doubt is aware of this disturbing trend. And he's got until the Oct. 26 matchup in Evanston to fix it.
Recent wins vs. Iowa: 24-15 (Iowa City, 2017); 38-36 (West Lafayette, 2018).
In a nutshell: As you’ll see in the quote to follow, Brohm has effectively identified weak spots in Iowa’s pass coverage and gone after them, again and again. The Boilermakers have also surprisingly bottled up Iowa’s running game; the Hawkeyes have managed a mere 2.7 yards per rush in two years against Brohm.
Brohm says: “We’ve had a little luck on our side both years.
“When you can get a big play or two on them, it helps. They’re great at not giving up big plays. They’re a team that controls the ball, plays with great defense, has a great offensive line and running game. So, if you can find a way to get a lead — which we did by being aggressive — it puts them in a harder position.”
The one thing Iowa needs to fix: big plays.
Almost like clockwork (and to Brohm’s point), Purdue has annually turned deep shots into double-digit leads against Iowa at around the 12-minute mark of the third quarter — 21-9 two years ago, 28-17 after an 82-yard heave to Terry Wright last year.
Iowa gave up the fewest big plays of any team in the Big Ten in 2018, but have struggled to plug the gaps against Brohm and the Boilermakers.
Recent wins vs. Iowa: 17-9 (Iowa City, 2016), 38-14 (Madison, 2017), 28-17 (Iowa City, 2018).
In a nutshell: Wisconsin was clearly the better team in division-title years of 2016 and 2017, but Iowa let last year’s result slip away by yielding two touchdowns in the final minute. The Iowa-Wisconsin winner usually decides the West, so this year's Nov. 9 matchup should be packed with meaning.
Chryst says: “You look at (Iowa), and you know it’s going to be a well-fought, tough game. You’ve got to do things to give yourself a chance. The game we didn’t (a 10-6 Iowa win in 2015), we turned the ball over four or five times. When you’re playing against a good opponent, a team you’re evenly matched with, it’s all those little things.”
The one thing Iowa needs to fix: third downs.
(And, by extension, time of possession.)
The Badgers are 20-for-44 (45.4%) vs. Iowa on third downs over the past three years, compared with the Hawkeyes’ woeful 7-for-37 (18.9%). That’s gameplanning, play-calling and execution ... that’s getting to third-and-manageable instead of third-and-long.
As a result, Wisconsin has hogged the ball for an average of 36 minutes, 54 seconds in the past three meetings against Iowa, compared with the Hawkeyes’ 23:06.
That discrepancy matters. Iowa’s defense was exposed and tired in last year’s decisive final minutes.
In conclusion ...
Iowa players watched Northwestern celebrate a Big Ten West title at Kinnick last year. The woes against Wisconsin are well-documented. Ferentz knows the importance of those two opponents, in particular.
"The bottom line is they played better than us in all of those games," Ferentz said last week. "... I think we know what it’s going to take to be successful. Now the challenge is: Can we do it? We’re going to have to."
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.