Leistikow: Ball security isn't sexy, but it works wonders for Kirk Ferentz's Hawkeyes

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — There’s a sign posted in offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz’s tight ends room that Iowa football players had better take to heart.

It reads: "Ball security is job security."

Hold onto the ball on Saturdays, hold onto imperative trust from Hawkeye coaches for life.

Protecting the football is a key tenet of the Kirk Ferentz Iowa program, a priority he learned as a first-year assistant under Hayden Fry in 1981 as the Hawkeyes had an offensively-challenged team with a legendary punter and a stout defense. The easiest ticket off the field in Iowa’s offense is to be careless with the football.

Every Monday, according to senior defensive back Michael Ojemudia, the longtime head coach uses statistical evidence to remind the team of the importance of turnovers.

"More times than not," junior running back Toren Young said, "the team who takes care of the ball is the team that comes out on top."

Mekhi Sargent (10) has just one lost fumble in 239 offensive touches in his Iowa career; teammate Toren Young has none in 223.

So far — shhhhhh — no FBS team in the country is a better caretaker of the football than Iowa.

“I don’t want to talk too much about it,” Kirk Ferentz began Tuesday as the topic was raised at his weekly press conference, not wanting to anger the football gods in what’s been a remarkable Hawkeye stretch of ball protection.

But he did elaborate and explain that, "for the most part, the guys touching the football have some experience."

Ferentz wasn't the only one reluctantly speaking on the matter. Young didn't want to talk about the fact that he hasn't lost a fumble in 223 collegiate touches. The word "fumble" is forbidden in assistant coach Derrick Foster's running backs room.

The 4-0, 14th-ranked Hawkeyes are tied with Oregon State for fewest turnovers among FBS teams with one — a lone fumble by fullback Brady Ross in the season opener when he inexplicably tried to pitch the football while being tackled for a loss. That’s the only fumble or interception by Iowa in 296 offensive plays plus special-teams duty.

In contrast, Iowa’s opponent Saturday has been coughing up the football with regularity. No. 18 Michigan has put 12 fumbles on the ground (11 more than Iowa) through four games. The Wolverines' seven lost fumbles are tied for 125th among 130 FBS teams; their 10 total turnovers are tied for 110th.

Ferentz has reminded his team of that statistic this week.

Protect the ball, of course.

And then take it away, too.

That latter message is emphasized by defensive coordinator Phil Parker. The Hawkeyes’ 44 interceptions since the start of the 2017 season are tied for the most in FBS, but they haven’t picked one off since Week 2 against Rutgers. That’s a bonafide drought for a Parker defense.

"(Ferentz) talks about turnover ratio,” Ojemudia said. “Coach Parker talks about big plays and how that leads to points."

Imagine how Saturday’s 11 a.m. showdown at Michigan Stadium might turn if the Hawkeyes score points with their defense.

The trends don’t lie. Teams that win the battle of turnovers enjoy roughly a 78% win percentage.

Of course, you won't hear a lot about that statistic being debated on sports radio. No extended segment on ESPN's "College GameDay."

It’s not a sexy selling point in today's wide-open game. But when have Kirk Ferentz teams ever tried to be sexy?

Maybe after reading these numbers, talking about turnover margin will become more alluring.

Iowa has gone 13 straight games without losing the turnover battle.

That dates to a 28-17 home loss to Wisconsin on Sept. 22, 2018, when Iowa went minus-3. The Hawkeyes have won the turnover battle in nine of those games, going 8-1 (only losing at Purdue), and been even four times (going 2-2).

“A lot of teams don’t realize how important that is,” Ojemudia said.

None of Nate Stanley’s last 136 pass attempts have been intercepted.

The senior credits experience and growing comfort for helping him make smarter, refined decisions in the pocket. If you’re complaining about a Stanley overthrow, there’s a good chance it was intentionally thrown out of reach. If his receiver is well-covered, he makes sure to put the ball where it won’t be intercepted.

“Anticipation is a big thing, too,” said Stanley, who has 60 career touchdown passes vs. 16 interceptions. “You can throw somebody open and not give the DB a chance to make a play on it. If you wait until a guy’s open, that’s when the DB has a chance to make a play.”

Hawkeye running backs have lost two fumbles since the start of the 2018 season.

And both were in the fourth quarter last year in a disappointing home loss to Northwestern (by Mekhi Sargent and Ivory Kelly-Martin).

Iowa has regular ball-security stations in practice, in which teammates try to swat the ball out of each other’s arms. In one running back drill, a trailing player tries to punch or chop the ball out of the ball-carrier’s hand.

"The basic fundamentals. High and tight," Young said. "The things you hear every day. Sounds simple, but it’s important."

Iowa is plus-38 in turnovers since the start of the 2015 season.

Iowa's record is 41-16 in that time. That’s a telling stat that dates to sweeping changes made after a disappointing 7-6 campaign for a 2014 team that was picked to win the Big Ten West but fizzled with a minus-6 turnover margin.

“Protecting the ball is paramount,” Ferentz said. “To me it's no different than tackling well on defense. If you don't do those things consistently, then you'd better be more talented than every opponent you play, and that's hard to do.”

And, one more time, that brings us to Saturday’s game.

During Iowa's idle weekend, Michigan was playing Wisconsin. The Badgers scored on their opening drive, and Michigan began to answer.

Iowa senior tight end Nate Wieting was watching and filed away what happened next.

“Michigan drove right down the field, and Wisconsin was able to force a turnover in the red zone," Wieting said of what would become a 35-14 Badgers win. "That was a huge turning point in that game.

"If you can take care of the ball, I think you’ll have a pretty good chance.”

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.