Leistikow: Kirk Ferentz 'disappointed' about transfers, optimistic 0-2 Hawkeyes will stick together
The chain reaction of troubling events in less than a week has created bad optics for Kirk Ferentz and added to the adversity facing his Iowa football program.
After losing an opener at Purdue it should have won, Iowa had two players enter the NCAA’s transfer portal the following Thursday. Then came Saturday’s agonizing, 21-20 loss to Northwestern that saw the Hawkeyes blow a 17-point lead and fall to 0-2, essentially extinguishing their hopes at a conference title in this shortened season. Then came the OWI arrest Sunday morning for star wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette, who was promptly suspended for Saturday’s matchup against Michigan State after being pulled over for driving 74 mph in a 30-mph zone. Then on Tuesday, a third Hawkeye in wide receiver Calvin Lockett joined running back Shadrick Byrd and linebacker Yahweh Jeudy in the transfer portal.
This is about the absolute worst way the on-field portion of the football calendar could’ve started for Ferentz, considering the threat of a lawsuit from Black former players is still hanging over the program and his legacy.
During his weekly news conference Tuesday, Ferentz acknowledged that on-field losses haven't helped.
"As it stands right now, we are an 0-2 football team," Ferentz said. "Nothing about that feels good. Why would it? But our focus, our encouragement to the players is to focus on the remaining 80% of the season. There’s a lot of football left.”
Ferentz, 65, knew this season was going to be one of the most difficult challenges of his coaching career. After a summer of allegations and an investigation over racial disparities and player mistreatment in the program, it's a bad look that three Black players want to transfer within the first 10 days of the season.
For perspective, these are the first three transfers of Black scholarship players in almost 15 months; linebacker Jayden McDonald was the previous such instance, when he entered the portal in August 2019. And, Ferentz correctly noted, transfer decisions are more prevalent after spring practices — which were canceled this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Spring ball allows student-athletes a better chance to see where they stand on the team.
Byrd, a second-year freshman from Alabama, played on special teams at Purdue before entering the portal. Florida natives Jeudy (a second-year freshman) and Lockett (a third-year sophomore) have never played a snap for the Hawkeyes.
“They’re at distance from home. I think that’s part of it. The other similarity is all three weren’t in the two-deep either of the first two weeks," Ferentz said. "All that being said, it’s disappointing because all three of them were doing well. They’re all good people and good players and have good potential."
Ferentz seemed a little defensive when asked about whether he had any worries about keeping the team together, in light of the past week of events.
"You must know something I don't know; I don't know what's going on," Ferentz said. "But yeah, our guys have been great.
"When you don’t win, it’s a little harder. They were great on the field (Monday) morning. We had a good workout, got a lot done, a lot accomplished. Good meetings last night.
"I have no reason to think that they're not going to just keep pushing forward. I have no reason to believe that. I think we have good players; I think we have good people. I haven't seen anything to the contrary.
“I’m seeing a lot more good than negatives, that’s for sure.”
The continued second-half struggles against Big Ten Conference competition got worse, if that was possible.
The Hawkeyes failed to score after Keith Duncan’s 47-yard field goal with 7 minutes, 9 seconds left in the second quarter against Northwestern.
With Saturday’s seven empty possessions after halftime, that runs Iowa’s meter to 28 straight second-half possessions in Big Ten games (not counting one for kneel-downs) without a touchdown. The summary of outcomes: zero touchdowns, five field goals, three interceptions, two fumbles, three turnovers on downs and 15 punts.
Iowa’s last second-half touchdown was a 75-yard pass from Nate Stanley to Tyrone Tracy Jr. at Wisconsin on Nov. 9, 2019. Iowa missed the subsequent two-point conversion and lost 24-22. The Hawkeyes averaged 2.9 yards per play after halftime against Northwestern on Saturday and committed three turnovers.
“Like any game, it’s a team effort,” Ferentz said. “So, it’s either a team win or a team loss. The bottom line is all of us can do things a little bit better, (including the) coaching.”
Ferentz said Iowa will continue to rotate offensive linemen.
Iowa’s depth chart released Monday showed Coy Cronk as the starting right tackle, even though he was replaced midway through Saturday's third quarter by Mark Kallenberger.
Cronk’s missed assignments cost Iowa dearly on back-to-back plays. He allowed pressure on a third-and-14 pass, which hurried Spencer Petras’ throw to Sam LaPorta — who was wide-open for a possible first down along the left sideline. Petras overthrew him, and Iowa punted.
On Iowa’s next snap, after getting the ball back at Northwestern’s 44, Cronk was beaten badly and Petras' rhythm was disrupted. He threw the first of three second-half interceptions, and Northwestern capitalized on the turnover by taking the lead. Cronk, the graduate transfer from Indiana, didn’t play again.
Ferentz indicated Tuesday that he hoped to have the same starting five against Michigan State — Alaric Jackson, Cole Banwart, Tyler Linderbaum, Kyler Schott and Cronk — with Kallenberger mixing in at right tackle and Cody Ince (who has played 22 snaps in each of Iowa’s first two games) at left guard.
“No matter who starts the game, I would assume we’ll keep rotating players and giving them all work,” Ferentz said. “They’ve earned that.”
Through two games, Spencer Petras ranks 88th out of 93 qualified FBS starting quarterbacks in completion percentage.
That’s according to TeamRankings.com. Petras' 48 completions on 89 attempts (53.9%) are indicative of an inconsistent Iowa offense.
Ferentz pointed to Petras’ lack of spring practice with the No. 1 unit as contributing to his slow start. Also, he noted, Iowa would normally have a few nonconference games to allow him to make mistakes and learn from them before Big Ten play begins. Petras has had neither luxury and for the third straight Saturday (against Michigan State’s Rocky Lombardi) will face a quarterback counterpart with more starting experience.
On this topic, Ferentz's mind went back to James Vandenberg's first prominent action, when as a freshman he was thrust into the middle of the 2009 Northwestern game after starter Ricky Stanzi got hurt. Vandenberg struggled in that moment, but was much better the following week at Ohio State.
“I think he’s doing a really good job," Ferentz said of Petras. "Had a couple tough series this past game in the second half.
“It’s week to week. He’s a young guy. He’s quality. We all believe in him. He’s done a lot of good things already. All of us are confident he’s going to keep getting better as we go.”
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.