Leistikow's 5 thoughts: Iowa's punting-and-defense formula sparks memories of 1981 success
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Kirk Ferentz was a 26-year-old offensive line coach at Iowa in 1981, his first full-time assistant gig in college football. He was a western Pennsylvania kid who played his college ball in Connecticut. Ferentz didn’t know much about the Midwest, let alone Iowa, when he was hired to join Hayden Fry’s staff.
Safe to say, he was impressionable young assistant coach. And that 1981 season no doubt left an impression. Not only would the Hawkeyes end a string of 20 straight non-winning seasons, they stunned the nation by claiming a Big Ten Conference championship and Rose Bowl berth.
They beat three top-10 opponents that year, allowing 7 points in each win — 10-7 against No. 7 Nebraska in the opener, 20-7 against No. 6 UCLA in Week 3 and 9-7 at No. 5 Michigan.
Their formula to win then was elite punting and defense.
Forty years later, history looks to be repeating itself.
Ferentz, now 66 and in his 23rd year as Iowa’s head coach, is presiding over a team that has a lot of the 1981 Hawkeyes' DNA. And, yes, he sees the parallels.
Reggie Roby was an all-time punting legend then; he averaged 49.8 yards per boot that year, which remains a school record.
Tory Taylor is rekindling Roby memories today. The Australian’s eight punts for a 51.1-yard average on Saturday helped seize momentum for Iowa in a 27-17 win at then-No. 9 Iowa State. His deft ability to drop punts inside the 10-yard line is magical to watch. His first punt Saturday soared 77 yards from where he stood — landing at the Iowa State 4-yard line and bouncing back lightly to be downed at the 8. In net yardage, it was a 58-yard punt with no return and it set the tone for the day.
Scoff if you will, but Taylor’s effectiveness is unquestionably one of the reasons Iowa was ranked No. 5 by the Associated Press and No. 7 by the coaches this week.
"It’s amazing. He does a great job," tight end Luke Lachey said. "It’s so cool to watch the ball fly up there."
In 1981, team defense carried the Hawkeyes. Of their 11 regular-season opponents, seven didn’t score more than a touchdown. They secured 21 interceptions that season. The 11.7 points per game allowed in 1981 also remains a modern-era school record.
Likewise, Iowa’s 2-0 start in 2021 has been defined by takeaways. The "Ball Hawks" have forced seven turnovers and scored three touchdowns — two by Riley Moss, one by Jack Campbell — and have held two top-20 opponents to an average of 11.5 points.
"It’s selflessness. It’s preparation," Iowa senior defensive end Zach VanValkenburg said. "It’s not just one guy going out and making a bunch of plays. We’re all doing our assignments."
That was the mentality of the 1981 defense, too, that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. Although, it helps to have a few standouts. A guy named Andre Tippett was pretty dang good in 1981.
"We let Reggie change field position. We had a defense that was extremely ornery," Ferentz said Tuesday. "When we got field position, we just got points out of it. Played two quarterbacks that year. Things weren't perfect, but we found a way to get it done."
There should be no designs that a punting-and-defense formula is enough, though.
That was true in 1981, too. The Iowa offense that year sputtered; quarterbacks Gordy Bohannon and Pete Gales completed 50.7% of their passes. Those Hawkeyes broke through to win the Big Ten, but they also finished 8-4 after a 28-0 Rose Bowl loss to Washington.
Given Iowa's top-five status now, an 8-4 year would be a disappointment.
So, the ideal scenario is that the Iowa offense kicks things into gear soon. Ferentz thinks that will happen. Players brought to interviews Tuesday seemed to sense that would be a popular question, so they didn’t say much about it.
"We just need to keep playing as hard as we can," receiver Charlie Jones said.
Quarterback Spencer Petras, who is 24-for-48 for 251 yards this season, was requested but not in the Tuesday interview mix. The starting quarterback rarely doesn’t partake in Iowa's weekly media availability. Moss, who is one of Petras’ roommates, said the two have talked about blocking outside noise. Moss experienced backlash as a true freshman cornerback when he had a rough outing at Purdue in 2018.
"I said (to Petras), 'Stuff happens but it’s how you come back,'" Moss said. “I feel like he’s done a very good job of maturing and really seeing all that matters is on the field. He’s really calmed down and looks a lot more comfortable."
Jones reacts to the Kirk Herbstreit love thrown his way.
Jones, a fifth-year senior and former walk-on Buffalo transfer, grinned at the thought that ESPN's famous lead analyst was consistently praising his play during Iowa’s win in Ames. Some of Jones' buddies back home in the Chicago area made sure he was aware of it.
"It’s nice to see. It’s been a long road," Jones said. "It’s definitely not over, but it’s nice to see some things coming into place."
Jones made a spectacular 26-yard touchdown catch to give Iowa a 14-3 lead Saturday. He also delivered some nifty punt returns that flipped field position and nearly made a second highlight-reel grab in the back of the end zone in the third quarter. Jones’ journey has been a long and winding one, giving up his scholarship at Buffalo to come here as a walk-on in 2019.
Buffalo is a Mid-American Conference program. Iowa next opponent, Kent State, is also a MAC team. Jones’ perspective was appreciated Tuesday on multiple levels.
"The MAC gets a bad rap sometimes, but there’s people in that league that are just as good as people in the Big Ten or SEC," Jones said. "For us, we’ll keep focusing and prepare like we always do. We’re not going to go easy just because we’re playing a MAC team."
Iowa is a 22 ½-point favorite for the 2:40 p.m. game at Kinnick Stadium.
Welcome back, Kyler Schott.
Freshman left tackle Mason Richman said with a laugh Tuesday that he’s gotten used to seeing Schott and his long, brown hair flowing in practice while standing on the sideline in street clothes. Now, most of Schott’s hair is covered by his helmet.
That’s because the fifth-year senior right guard is practicing again, and Ferentz said Schott would play (but added, "I don't know how much") in Saturday’s game. Schott has missed more than a month of practice after fracturing a bone in his right foot after jumping off hay bales at his family farm in Coggon in early August.
"It’s good having him out there and back. He’s looking great out there. Real fast," Richman said.
Schott has eight career starts to his name, but he’s a program veteran who gives a young offensive line some experience and stability.
Iowa struggled on the right side of its line, in particular, against Iowa State. Right tackle Nick DeJong allowed a lot of pressures on Petras. Iowa rotated Justin Britt and improving true freshman Connor Colby at guard. Colby has the flexibility to play right tackle, too.
It’ll be interesting to see how George Barnett shuffles and rotates his group this week. If Schott is back inside, might Colby flex to right tackle in a rotation? That would make some sense — whether sooner or later.
"Kyler’s a really physical guy. He certainly brings an attitude to some of the plays each and every week," Richman said. "I also think he brings leadership. … When you get two great guys like 'Shooter' and 'Lindy' (preseason all-American Tyler Linderbaum) who have played a lot of downs, it certainly brings the group closer."
Iowa-Penn State game is sold out; could we see another top-10 battle?
There is no game time set for the Oct. 9 home game against Penn State; there's a chance it could be Fox's "Big Noon" game (11 a.m. CT) or at night. But we did find out Tuesday that all 69,250 seats are spoken for.
The schedule for 2-0 Iowa between now and then: vs. Kent State (1-1), vs. Colorado State (0-2) and at Maryland (2-0).
The schedule for 2-0 and 12th-ranked Penn State: Saturday's "White-out" game vs. No. 22 Auburn (2-0), vs. Villanova (2-0) and vs. Indiana (1-1).
If (big if) both teams can get to 5-0 for that Kinnick Stadium clash, it would be the biggest Iowa-Penn State game ever.
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.