Leistikow: What changes did Iowa make in its bye week? From the look of things, not many
MADISON, Wis. — What did Iowa’s 10th-ranked football team do during its lone off week of the regular season?
Watching the Hawkeyes bumble their way to a 27-7 loss Saturday at Wisconsin, it was hard to detect any significant changes.
Listening to the Hawkeyes afterward confirmed that assessment.
Receiver Charlie Jones said that during the bye week, “We were just focused on things that we do.”
Free safety Jack Koerner said it was about "correcting some of the fundamental stuff, whether that was (from the) Purdue (loss) or the whole season.”
Spencer Petras said scheme tweaks weren’t made. "We're not inventing any plays," the junior quarterback said.
The plan was essentially to "coach 'em up." To do better at the stuff that got exposed in a 24-7 loss to Purdue.
That plan was short-sighted Saturday, and Kirk Ferentz knew in his postgame remarks that the Hawkeye faithful wouldn’t take it well.
“I’m sure our fans are frustrated right now,” the head coach said.
They should be.
It’s one thing to lose to rival Wisconsin yet again with the race for the Big Ten West on the line. An Iowa win on Saturday would’ve put the Hawkeyes in the front-runner spot to represent the West in the Dec. 4 Big Ten Championship Game.
It’s another thing to cede control of the division to the Badgers yet again with the same-old approach that produced the same-old failures. How often have we seen Badger linebackers slicing through Iowa’s offensive line at Camp Randall Stadium? (Answer: Every two years.)
The Hawkeyes have gone from 6-0 and No. 2 in college football to back-to-back losses by a combined 51-14 to decent-not-great Big Ten West rivals. Their offense was No. 119 in the country out of 130 entering Saturday. It'll drop further after a meager 156-yard output.
“It’s the same offense,” Petras said. “We got beat, twice. We got outplayed, twice. That can’t happen.”
You can say that again.
Yet after the game, Ferentz preached staying the course, again.
“Nobody in our camp is ready to pack it in. We’re going to play it out,” Ferentz said. “We can’t afford to be reactionary. You’ve just got to play it out — good, bad or indifferent.”
To his credit, one of Ferentz’s best qualities has been to never get too high after a win or too low after a loss. And there have been plenty of both over 23 years.
That approach will be tested over the next four games — on the field, with the fan base and in the locker room.
The Big Ten West race isn’t over, but Iowa would have to go 4-0 against Northwestern, Minnesota, Illinois and Nebraska plus get a lot of help to earn a spot in Indianapolis. If Wisconsin or Minnesota is playing in Indy on Dec. 4, even if Iowa has a 10-2 record, that’s a sting that will be hard to ignore, given how the Hawkeyes seemed to be building toward a special season.
Ferentz needs to get his own team going, and that centers around the offense. That is the unit holding this team back. The status quo won't cut it.
The most significant shortfall is on the offensive line. The rotation of Jack Plumb and Nick DeJong at right tackle isn’t working. Ferentz didn’t want to get into detail but did say some guys — probably beyond guards Kyler Schott and Cody Ince — are playing through injuries.
“That affects how you prepare and how you perform on Saturdays,” Ferentz said. “That’s part of the football team. That’s part of the train we have to navigate."
If he's healthy, it might be time to let true freshman Connor Colby take a shot at right tackle.
Ferentz dismissed that any quarterback changes would be coming. Petras, for his lack of mobility, still gives Iowa its best chance at success.
Ferentz’s trust in his son, offensive coordinator Brian, might be tested as much as anything over the next four weeks. In five years as OC, Brian Ferentz's only win against Wisconsin came against a COVID- and injury-decimated Badgers squad in 2020. Two of his biggest failures have come here — in 2017, with a 66-yard output, and Saturday.
I asked about the level of confidence in his son after the game, and here’s what Kirk said: “It’s my 23rd year here, and I’ve had confidence in our coaches for 23 years. That’s how I feel right now. We’ll do what we do every time you hit a bump. We’ll pull together, work hard. We’ve got a good room of people.
“I’ve got total confidence in our staff. We have an outstanding staff.”
That may be not what Hawkeye fans want to hear now, as they start to consider canceling their hotel rooms in Indianapolis for a sixth straight year. But trusting the process at Iowa has led to a lot of success under Kirk Ferentz — even as recently as three weeks ago against Penn State.
Let's see where things go over the next four weeks before making final judgments about whether coaching changes should be made or schemes should be radically changed. Ferentz will do the same.
But two things are certain after Saturday.
Something has to change in the future against Wisconsin.
And if Iowa loses next week at Northwestern — another old nemesis — the outside angst felt Saturday will be exponentially worse.
"There’s no quit in this team, no quit in this program, these coaches, these players," Petras said in a reassuring message. "There’s no quit at all. We’re just going to do what we can to review the film and see what we can do better. All eyes ahead toward Northwestern. We will push it through."
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.