Brown: Kirk Ferentz's coaching seat just got hotter
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz was asked Friday about the temperature outside his football program.
"Single digits in Iowa," Ferentz said. "Do you want to be more specific than that? I'm serious."
The question was the elephant in the room after Iowa fell in a 28-0 hole and lost to Tennessee 45-28 in the TaxSlayer Bowl at EverBank Field.
The Hawkeyes finished the season an underachieving 7-6, a record celebrated on some campuses but not in Iowa City. Ferentz knows the natives are restless and the seat is getting hotter, just like he's determined to have more success than this team did in the future.
"We had a coach to the west of us (Nebraska's Bo Pelini) that won a lot of football games that got fired," Ferentz said. "If you're in this profession, that's part of the deal. If I'm going to sit around listening to the temperature, reading the temperature on the outside, more what I need to do is take the energy that I can put towards the job and put it on our improvement. That's typically what we've tried to do for 16 years."
Iowa athletic director Gary Barta said last month that Ferentz would return in 2015, confident the foundation was there for the same kind of success that came earlier in his coaching career. After Friday's game, Barta admitted the angst around the program is greater than at any time since he arrived in 2006.
"There's no one I'd rather play for," said senior running back Mark Weisman, one of 16 Hawkeyes playing their final game
But those four top-10 finishes in the national polls, two Big Ten titles and two Orange Bowl appearances continue to gather dust. Iowa's senior class ended their careers without a bowl victory, something Iowa hasn't enjoyed since beating Missouri in the 2010 Insight Bowl. The Hawkeyes' record since that Missouri victory is 26-25.
Tennessee, a young team that entered its first bowl appearance since 2010 with a 6-6 record, took a 35-7 lead into halftime and coasted home. As he watched his team prepare for Friday's game, Ferentz had no inkling there was trouble lurking right around the corner. He thought his team was ready to go.
"You would never know it based on what you saw at 3:25 (kickoff time in Jacksonville)," Ferentz said. "That's about as good a month as we've had since I've been here. For whatever reason, it did not show."
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The buzz in the week leading up to the game was Iowa's quarterback position. Ferentz said that both Jake Rudock and C.J. Beathard would play in the first half, and they alternated possessions.
But it turns out the real discussion should have been about Iowa's defense.
"The way it turned out, for sure," Ferentz said.
The Hawkeyes were exposed defensively at every turn in the first half, missed a slug of tackles when they were in position to make a play and were sliced and diced by quarterback Josh Dobbs.
Tennessee had a 28-0 lead before ever making it to third down, maybe the most sobering statistic of the day.
This week, Ferentz said that Tennessee reminded him of Maryland and Minnesota. If Ferentz, by his own description, was embarrassed by those M&M losses, what do you call Friday's third dose of humble pie?
"I think it's embarrassing also," Outland Trophy winner and consensus all-American offensive tackle Brandon Scherff said. "But I'm glad we showed a little fight in the second half there. Too bad we were down that much because it would have been a good football game after that."
The Hawkeye defense surrendered 11 plays of 11 yards or more, including touchdown plays of 19, 29 and 49 yards, in the first half. The Volunteers averaged better than a first down — 12.8 yards — per play in the opening half.
The 35 points were the most ever allowed by Iowa in the first half of any of their 28 bowl appearances. Only five times had the Hawkeyes allowed more than 35 points in a bowl game.
Iowa's seniors talked about wanting to say goodbye with a victory, about wanting to leave with a trophy. Instead, the Hawkeyes finished the season 0-5 in trophy games.
"Not the way anyone wants to end their career here," said Weisman, who finished one shy of the school record with 32 career touchdowns.
Ferentz's career isn't over. And his challenge now is to keep it that way.
Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.