Leistikow: Is Iowa football's offense too complex? A conversation about identity ahead of Citrus Bowl
ORLANDO, Fla. — About seven hours before Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz met the media ahead of Saturday’s Vrbo Citrus Bowl, Minnesota was in the Arizona desert wrapping up an 18-6 win against West Virginia in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl.
The Golden Gophers, down to their fourth- and fifth-string running backs for most of the fall, maintained their offensive identity until the end of a 9-4 season. They rushed 51 times for 249 yards against the Mountaineers behind a physical offensive line. Both running backs topped 100 yards. Minnesota maintained possession for nearly two-thirds of the 60-minute game.
That’s a team with an identity: A big, mauling offensive line with an ability to run the ball when the opponent knows it’s coming, paired with decent quarterback play. The same could be said about another more successful Big Ten West program in Wisconsin.
Heck, think back to Nov. 13, and the Gophers did just about everything they wanted to do against Iowa. They punished a very good Hawkeye defense that night, holding the ball for more than 40 minutes. Iowa was outgained in yardage, 409-277. But somehow, the Hawkeyes’ offense found enough juice to pull out a 27-22 win. Alex Padilla hit Charlie Jones for a 72-yard touchdown pass to help Iowa rally, and Keagan Johnson turned a dead screen play into 7 crucial fourth-quarter points.
That, in a nutshell, highlights the complex conversation surrounding how Iowa’s unclear offensive identity and yards-challenged offense — on pace to be the program’s worst since 1998 — is viewed by the ultimate decision-maker, head coach Kirk Ferentz, in what gets changed moving forward.
This Hawkeye offense that averages 297.5 yards per game is Kirk’s offense, ultimately, not his son’s. That offense, in a sense, has done enough to beat Minnesota seven straight years. Was enough to win the Big Ten West Division this season. But it is Kirk's offense that is regularly punchless against Wisconsin (27-7 loss this year) and was overwhelmed in a humbling 42-3 loss to Michigan in the Dec. 4 Big Ten title game.
So, when the question was asked Wednesday about what Iowa’s offensive identity is — a very fair question, because it’s hard to tell — Brian’s answer was telling.
“Maybe we are not that exciting. But at the end of the day, our job is simple: We need to change field position, and we need to score points,” Brian Ferentz said. “That's really it, because we’re a three-phase team: We play defense, special teams (and) offense. We win when all three of those phases are working together.
“So, the identity is simple: We need to be a group that can support the team and win games however we need to win those games.”
Win games however we need to win those games.
But wouldn’t it be easier if Iowa could run the football like Minnesota or Wisconsin could?
If you’re going to play three-phase football, it would be good if one of the phases wasn’t dead weight. Right?
For what it's worth, "playing to win" is something that the defensive coordinator for Kentucky — Iowa’s Saturday opponent at noon CT inside Camping World Stadium — spoke about Wednesday. In saying that stats can sometimes be deceiving, Brad White was genuinely complimentary in how Iowa’s offense stresses a defense.
“When you look at how they are able to control the game, it fits into what they do. It is their identity,” White said. “It starts up front for them. Their offensive line, especially interiorly, does a great job of creating initial push, creating some seams in their run game, in their zone scheme. Then, it sets up their play-action game, and it sets up their boot game.
“The mirroring of both run and play-action and boot looks almost identical. … When it looks the same, it gets to be hard. And they do a great job because of repetition. They do a great job of varying looks and they do a great job of self-scouting themselves. So, their tendencies are minimal, in that regard. It's hard to pinpoint and attack certain things.”
Sure, we saw how Iowa’s bootleg game worked for a while against Michigan. Spencer Petras hit Sam LaPorta and Luke Lachey for some nice gains. But once the Wolverines adjusted, the Hawkeyes seemed incapable of finding other answers.
Iowa's identity sounds better in quotes than it looks on the field.
Brian Ferentz’s answer on identity continued into the program’s desire to be the more physical running team.
“You can make up the difference perhaps between you and an opponent … with the togetherness of team and with the physical (nature) of the game. That's what we are always going to be built on,” he said. “If you want to look program-wide, look, our job offensively is to fit within to that goal. But that's always going to come down to running the football."
But outside of a few seasons in the past decade-plus, Iowa’s running game has been below-average. This season, Iowa's 3.27 yards per carry rank 113th out of 130 FBS teams. With a lackluster run game, you need an elite quarterback to make Iowa’s attempted offensive style work. Brad Banks elevated this team in 2002, yes, and he was accompanied by an all-time great offensive line. And C.J. Beathard (healthy version) in 2015 is the type of quarterback Iowa needs — someone who can run the offense but make off-script plays when things fall apart.
On Tuesday, Padilla commented that, "This offense is not easy. It takes a year, year-and-a-half to learn the intricacies of it."
That, in summary, is the problem as the 2021 Iowa football season draws to a close. Especially when the running game can't emulate Minnesota's or Wisconsin's, the offense is too hard for a quarterback to master in a college atmosphere. The athletes have limited study time, limited practice time and a short time on campus as compared to the NFL atmosphere under which Kirk and Brian Ferentz learned a lot of their craft.
In that sense, the system has been stacked against Petras and Padilla all along.
Brian Ferentz said he expects offseason changes ahead. How sweeping?
That might depend how Saturday unfolds.
The fifth-year offensive coordinator said Iowa in December has tried to "focus on things that we have been successful doing, things that we feel like we can match up against Kentucky and move the ball and change field position and score points when we have those opportunities."
"I feel like it has been a productive four weeks," he continued. "But ultimately, we will find out on Saturday."
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.