Leistikow's thoughts: Iowa loses developmental time in quick turnaround for Holiday Bowl

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Kirk Ferentz joked that the last time his Iowa football team prepared to face USC in a bowl game, it felt like 12 weeks.

The excruciatingly long layoff before the 2003 Orange Bowl — 47 days between games — has been flipped for the longtime Iowa head coach this time around. The Hawkeyes and Trojans will face off just 19 days after they learned they would play each other in the Dec. 27 Holiday Bowl in San Diego.

While that quick turnaround may not seem like a big deal, it actually is for Iowa — not in terms of whether the Hawkeyes win or lose, but in how key developmental time for younger players got cut.

“It really feels more like we had a double-bye than getting ready for a bowl prep,” Ferentz said Monday in his first news conference since the 9-3 Hawkeyes’ bowl destination was revealed. “So, pretty much everything we’ve done in the past, we threw that out and kind of started from scratch."

Kirk Ferentz, now 161-104 in 21 seasons at Iowa, is 46-19 over the past five seasons.

Normally, Iowa would give scout-teamers and freshmen longer looks at the beginning of bowl prep. But with Thanksgiving falling on the latest possible fourth Thursday in November, that kicked back the football calendar. Iowa's last game was Nov. 29 against Nebraska. Conference championship games weren’t done until Dec. 7. Bowl invitations were extended the next day. And the Dec. 27 bowl-game date ties the 2017 Pinstripe as the earliest of Ferentz's 17 appearances.

This is finals week at Iowa, so football practice time is minimal.

“We’re just trying to get an hour here and an hour there,” Ferentz said.

Starting with a Friday evening practice, Ferentz said the team will begin preparing “in earnest” for 8-4 USC. It flies to San Diego on Saturday to begin its game-week routine.

What younger players lose during this compressed time is the hands-on coaching from running the Hawkeyes’ offense and defense — like they would normally get in spring ball.

“That’s disappointing because we're a developmental program,” Ferentz said. “… Those calendar hours, we just can't make them up. That's the way it goes. We’ll have to do a better job in the spring.”

Despite the lost developmental time, Iowa is taking the right approach.

Sure, the Hawkeyes could push more inexperienced players onto the practice field during bowl prep, at the expense of veterans. But that would detract from winning this Holiday Bowl, which they’re very much committed to doing. As you would expect.

The Hawkeyes are aiming to accomplish the revised goal they set after losing a 24-22 heartbreaker to eventual Big Ten West champ (and Rose Bowl entrant) Wisconsin: A 10-win season.

In his opening remarks Monday, it was clear that Ferentz cared about the significance of adding that 10th win. He pointed out that Iowa’s 46 victories since the start of the 2015 season are tied for the most in a five-year stretch in Iowa program history. (Iowa went 46-15-1 from 1983 to 1987 under Hayden Fry; it went 46-17 from 2001 to 2005 under Ferentz.)

By beating USC, this would become Iowa's first five-year stretch with 47 wins.

Iowa’s records the past five seasons: 12-2, 8-5, 8-5, 9-4 and (so far) 9-3.

“Our guys can be really proud of the way they've competed, the way they've prepared, gone out and done that on a regular basis,” Ferentz said. “Which is easy to say, but a little tougher to do.”

The biggest news of Ferentz’s press conference?

Juniors Alaric Jackson and Chauncey Golston did not submit paperwork for an NFL evaluation.

That would seem to indicate they're returning for their fifth-year senior seasons. Their returns mean more to the 2020 Hawkeyes' season than any recruit that Iowa inks Wednesday, the first day high school seniors can sign with a Division I football program.

By coming back, Jackson would become a four-year starting left tackle at Iowa … and probably enjoys all kinds of preseason accolades, especially if Tristan Wirfs turns pro.

The same goes for Golston, who if A.J. Epenesa also turns pro would be the one getting all the attention next season — including from opposing offensive lines.

Ferentz used the word “encouraging” to describe Brandon Smith’s health status.

Iowa has been without its No. 1 “X” receiver, except for one hasty snap when Smith was thrown on the field in a pinch, since injuring his ankle Oct. 19 against Purdue.

The recovery has been slow, and his presence certainly would’ve helped in Madison. Even though Iowa went 4-1 without him, it’s a better team with the junior.

“I'm not going to say he's ready to go, but he is working back,” Ferentz said. “And that's encouraging.”

Ferentz said to ask again in San Diego; that he’ll know more then. Will do.

Yes, Iowa turned in some officiating curiosities from the Nebraska game to the Big Ten.

“We turned some stuff in,” Ferentz responded, “and heard some stuff back.”

On-field calls that were missed and overturned were head-scratching, to say the least. And Ferentz knew that, as he delivered his answer with a wry smile. Soon, Ferentz was on an officiating rant, stemming from the Patriots-Chiefs game he attended on Dec. 8 (to watch son James make his first career NFL start with New England).

Iowa freshman receiver Nico Ragaini briefly pulls in a pass against Nebraska in the fourth quarter during their Big 10 final season game on Friday, Nov. 29, 2019, at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb. The catch was later overturned and ruled incomplete after a game official reviewed the play.

"I'm not coaching in the NFL; I am not going to get fined. The officiating was terrible in that game," Ferentz said. “That cost the team that lost the game (the Patriots), in my opinion. Two of them were right where I was sitting.

"If they can't get it right in the NFL, and I hear it every day when I come in on the radio. … I'm not so sure right now we just couldn't get rid of replay, quite frankly."

One of the most controversial calls in Iowa’s 27-24 win against Nebraska was an overturned 38-yard catch by Nico Ragaini. It boggles Ferentz’s mind that a replay official, not the referee on the field, has the final say.

"Seems silly to me," Ferentz said. "I don't know. Backwards."

And with that, the officiating tangent was done.

This is often the time of year for position changes.

But, Ferentz said, none to report this time around. The biggest switch a year ago was moving Tyler Linderbaum from defensive tackle to offensive line. That worked out well.

“I don't know if we'll have any until spring,” Ferentz said. “Nothing on the horizon at this point.”

I’m guessing once some NFL stay-or-go decisions get made (and the always-inevitable transfers) there will be more serious discussion of position changes based on need.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.