Leistikow: Kirk Ferentz's challenging 2020 just got even tougher

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Perhaps the most challenging year of Kirk Ferentz’s career got even more complicated and daunting Saturday night.

A 21-20 home loss to Northwestern and the 22nd-year Iowa head coach’s first 0-2 start in 20 years freshly puts the question out there: What’s the plan now?

Time to blow things up?

Time to start playing for 2021?

Time to take a deep breath? Let’s start there and move to the other questions.

We knew in June this was going to be a significant, important year for Ferentz. In the wake of allegations of racial disparities and player mistreatment in his program, university leadership made it clear that Ferentz was the right guy to lead the necessary change.

Kirk Ferentz is off to an 0-2 start for the first time since 2000, his second year as Iowa's head coach.

Some of that off-field change was displayed on the field Saturday afternoon, with 29 Hawkeye players kneeling during the national anthem — a demonstration Ferentz never would have allowed a few seasons ago. Ferentz stood for the American flag, while putting his left hand on the shoulder of kneeling Leshon Williams, a freshman running back.

Ferentz saw what happened before the game as a product of team togetherness and a healthy respect for each other’s opinions.

“I don’t know what else you could ask for as a coach,” Ferentz, 65, said afterward.

But now after back-to-back losses, plus the news that two Black players (Shadrick Byrd and Yahweh Jeudy) were transferring, plus the Sunday-morning report that star receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette had been arrested for OWI ... there’s going to be an additional challenge in holding this roster together and keeping the players pointed toward a common goal.

Of course, Ferentz will say that the Hawkeyes can respond with a one-game-at-a-time approach and that they're not giving up on the Big Ten West. But we on the outside can say realistically (eye test) and mathematically (already two games behind Purdue and Northwestern, and don't count out on-pause Wisconsin) that a miraculous charge to a division title is an extreme long shot.

Except for 1999 and maybe 2000, Ferentz has never had a season start like this — where it was almost over before it got going. Even in the awful 4-8 campaign of 2012, Iowa showed signs of hope after opening 2-0 in Big Ten play before the six-game collapse.

Among Ferentz’s immediate challenges …

No. 1: Michigan State.

A week ago, it looked like the Spartans would be the most beatable opponent on Iowa’s schedule after a home loss to lowly Rutgers. Now after a terrific win at Michigan, former West Des Moines Valley High School quarterback Rocky Lombardi leads Michigan State into Kinnick Stadium against a wounded Hawkeye team reeling from two division losses. What once looked like a promising schedule for Iowa to start 3-0 could be a ticket to 0-3.

No. 2: Keeping players engaged.

If things unravel quickly, there is a risk during this pandemic-impacted season that players (especially those who are NFL Draft-eligible) will opt out for the season, not wanting to risk an injury. Daviyon Nixon, for one, has certainly put together two brilliant games on film already while playing nearly every snap at defensive tackle.

No. 3: Getting more out of his quarterback.

Spencer Petras caught plenty of heat for Saturday’s 26-for-50 performance, which included three second-half interceptions in a one-point loss. It’s not hard to find social media posts from fans who are ready to see a fast page-turn to either Alex Padilla or Deuce Hogan.

For the record, Ferentz backed Petras after Saturday's loss, but has obvious concern about how the sophomore bounces back from his forgettable Halloween.

“This was not a fun experience certainly, wasn't a great experience for him in that second half,” Ferentz said. “But he'll grow from this because he's so conscientious and he works well. He'll be better for it, but boy, it's hard in the process. We all know that.

“I'm confident he'll be a better player moving forward. But yeah, that's certainly something we always worry about.”

Blow everything up?

You know Ferentz well enough to know he’s not going to fire coaches or make sweeping changes after two losses by a combined five points to start the season.

But he does have an opportunity and a responsibility to get the most out of this season.

If more losses mount, absolutely — Ferentz should chalk this up as a developmental season and publicly state that he’s playing for 2021. If Iowa drops to 1-4 or 0-5, for example, start treating the rest of the schedule like exhibitions and give younger players a chance to play — including at quarterback. Everyone's getting a free year of eligibility anyway. That might actually help buy Ferentz some time and leniency among a fan base that was justifiably agitated over Saturday’s outcome against an annoying nemesis.

But this week, Ferentz and his coaching staff must be better than they were Saturday. They need to coax the best out of Petras (and the rest of their players) and find a way to beat Michigan State. While even a first win would barely change the West Division math, it'd be a much-needed first step toward keeping this team together.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.