Leistikow's thoughts: Kirk Ferentz gives a better answer to painful Wisconsin loss

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Three days after a painful two-point loss at Wisconsin, Kirk Ferentz still wasn’t biting on topics of evaluations surrounding Iowa’s offense. Those can wait until the postseason, the 21st-year Iowa head coach unsurprisingly said.

Where his remarks were more pointed, though, were about the need to move past disappointment, like the 24-22 setback at Camp Randall Stadium brought.

“I think probably every coach believes this,” Ferentz said Tuesday. “The biggest challenge is you've got to turn the page at some point.

“It can be really challenging after a great win, too. It's maybe more challenging that way sometimes. But losses hit you.

“Our guys work not quite 12 months a year, but it feels like that. And you get 12 games. It's not like you can say, 'Hey, we'll just play the next best-of-three series.’ They really hurt.”

What Ferentz said Tuesday was a better representation of the disappointment than Saturday’s postgame press conference, when Ferentz addressed losing out on the West Division title with this quote: “That’s the way football goes sometimes.”

That comment struck a nerve with a frustrated fan base that latched onto Ferentz’s two-word line of “that’s football” after the 2014 regular season ended with a home loss to Nebraska.

Tuesday, it was good to hear Ferentz articulate that he feels the pain. He also has a good track record of having his teams respond positively from losses. Iowa famously responded to an embarrassing 2016 loss at Penn State with an upset of No. 3 Michigan. It rallied for three straight wins after falling to 6-4 in 2018, achieving a nine-win season and the second final top-25 program ranking of this decade.

It’s also important to recognize that Ferentz, 64, won't personally get infinitely more cracks at a Big Ten Conference title. He has indicated that he doesn’t picture himself as a head coach past 70, and it would not be a surprise if he peels away before his current contract expires in January 2026.

The clock is ticking. The disappointment is real. The next mission is clear: Saturday's 3 p.m. showdown against 9-0 Minnesota at Kinnick Stadium.

“As I said the other day, I'm not real global with my thinking at this point. I'm thinking about our next game, and that's really the only one that counts,” Ferentz said. “We have every opportunity to have a really good season this year.”

A 10-3 season is still on the table.

So is a 6-7 or 7-6 or 8-5 season. Any of those outcomes would be unpalatable to the majority Iowa fans. Ferentz seems to get that. The stakes are high over these next three games.

“At the end of the season, we’ll count them up,” Ferentz said. “And we’ll get what we deserve — good, bad or indifferent.”

Iowa-Minnesota could be all about emotions

Can the seventh-ranked Golden Gophers continue to ride their magical wave? What P.J. Fleck and Co. have going sure has the feel of 2015 Iowa.

Can the 22nd-ranked Hawkeyes find a way to match the motivation that Minnesota will surely have in their best start to a season in 115 years?

Of the seven Iowa players made available for interviews Tuesday, I thought quarterback Nate Stanley provided the best answer about what will drive the 6-3 Hawkeyes on Saturday.

How will Kirk Ferentz and the Hawkeyes respond from their deflating loss against a Minnesota team riding with a wave of emotion?

“The motivation is coming from knowing that we can play better than we did (at Wisconsin),” Stanley said. “We know we can play with the best teams in the country when we’re at our best. And we just didn’t do that.”

The scenario is familiar to what Iowa faced a year ago after falling to 6-3. The Hawkeyes were coming home after a deflating two-point road loss (to Purdue) and facing the surprise West Division leader (Northwestern). Iowa was a favorite by oddsmakers last year, but lost to the Wildcats, 14-10, in a frustrating performance.

Iowa is again favored, this time by 3 points, against the West Division leader that can’t seem to lose. Minnesota has won five games by seven points or less.

“I’m all ready to beat this team, trying to stop their wave,” strong safety Geno Stone said. “They’ve definitely got the momentum. They’re playing really well at this time of the year.”

Stanley conducted his interviews with a hoarse voice and pronounced cough Tuesday.

Just a sore throat, he said.

Perhaps more concerning was the massive shot he took on the final two-point conversion. He left the field staggering.

“Just kind of everything (hurt),” Stanley said. “Let’s just say that.”

As I rewatched that play, the heart and emotion Stanley plays with was obvious. He lowered his head into two crashing defenders. Give the guy credit. He's laying it all out there for the Hawkeyes. 

I asked him about the emotions of that exact moment, as 300-pound bodies piled around him while helplessly trying to get the ball to the goal line. He didn't have much to say, which was telling.

"It was a tough play,” he said.

Stanley threw for 208 yards and two touchdowns against Wisconsin. At 2,158 yards this season, Stanley fell behind Penn State’s Sean Clifford (2,271 yards) for the league lead. This week’s opposing quarterback, Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan, is third (2,100). Iowa hasn’t had a Big Ten passing-yards champion since Brad Banks in 2002.

Speaking of that two-point try, Ferentz has some officiating thoughts.

A question about onside-kick rules Tuesday morphed into an idea about the positioning of umpires. This was topical, considering the umpire in the Iowa-Wisconsin game inadvertently screened running back Mekhi Sargent from making what would have likely been the key block for Stanley to get into the end zone for a 24-all tie. 

Umpires are normally stationed on the defensive side of the line of scrimmage, and often are tasked to look for lineman infractions such as holding. Ferentz said quarterbacks coach Ken O'Keefe had an idea to move the umpire to the back of the end zone when the offense is inside the 10- or 12-yard line. The umpire moved from the shallow end zone to about the 2-yard line on Stanley's draw-run attempt.

"What he did was correct mechanically, but it just turned out he thought it was a pass," Ferentz said. "There's no room, so he's in a bad spot there. So maybe that'll come out of that game. Maybe one positive thing will come out of the game."

The Hawkeyes will be a little bit healthier Saturday against Minnesota.

Ferentz reported that tight end Nate Wieting, who has missed the last two games with an ankle injury, would return to action against the Gophers. Wieiting is Iowa's best blocking tight end. That's a plus.

It's also possible that middle linebacker Kristian Welch could return Saturday. He's missed the last 3½ games with a stinger but is finally "getting some work" in practice. Freshmen Dillon Doyle and Jack Campbell have been filling in.

"Anytime you have a senior in the lineup, it's a healthy thing," Ferentz said. "Hopefully he's getting closer. We'll have to see how the week pans out."

More encouraging news: Brandon Smith, Iowa's top wide receiver, is doing some practice work after ankle surgery. He is unlikely to play against Minnesota, but might dress out, which would be a positive sign for the final two regular-season games against Illinois and Nebraska.

The queue of walk-ons deserving of scholarships is at least three deep.

Iowa is relying heavily on three walk-ons, including the nation’s leader in field goals (Keith Duncan, whose 22 are a single-season Hawkeye record), the Hawkeyes’ leading tackler (free safety Jack Koerner) and the first-string right guard (Kyler Schott).

With many Hawkeye seniors leaving the program after the fall semester, perhaps one or all three will get a call to Ferentz's office in December or January with some good financial news. No doubt all three deserve to be on scholarship, given their 2019 performance.

“I’ve just got to keep going as hard as I can,” Schott said, “and hopefully tell myself it’s right around the corner.”

Schott’s return to the Hawkeye lineup was a big boost. Iowa’s pass protection was noticeably better in the second half against Wisconsin. He had missed five games with a broken bone in his foot, an injury that occurred when a teammate stepped on him in a September practice.

“It feels good. Just knowing that you come back from injury and you’ve got that (starting) spot," Schott said. "That must mean the coaches know you’re there and doing a good job.”