Iowa-Illinois State preview: Success hinges on one key stat
IOWA CITY, Ia. – For all the off-season hype and ink devoted to quarterback C.J. Beathard, two new offensive tackles and Kirk Ferentz 3.0, there's a less-discussed topic that probably matters more than any to Iowa football's 2015 success: Getting the other team to mess up.
Creating more turnovers correlates to more wins. Taking the 2013 college football season as an example, any team that had a plus-2 (or better) turnover margin had a 79 percent chance of victory. Last year, the top three FBS teams in turnover margin (Oregon, Michigan State and TCU) finished in the top five of the Associated Press' final poll.
So, yeah, the turnover stat is obvious. But it's an even more telling stat at Iowa, a program that Ferentz is not afraid to remind us has a small margin for error — which likely will be the case in Saturday's season opener vs. FCS No. 2-ranked Illinois State at Kinnick Stadium (11 a.m., Big Ten Network).
Exhibit A: Four times in Ferentz's 16 years at Iowa, the defense has created 30 or more turnovers for the season. Those teams combined for a 41-10 record:
--2002, 31 takeaways (11-2, Big Ten co-champs, Orange Bowl)
--2004, 32 takeaways (10-2, Big Ten co-champs, Tate-to-Holloway finish)
--2008, 32 takeaways (9-4, the Shonn Greene/Outback Bowl-winning year)
--2009, 30 takeaways (11-2, the 9-0 start, Ferentz's first BCS bowl win)
Exhibit B: Last season saw Iowa finish with an underachieving 7-6 record and the second-worst turnover margin in the Ferentz era: minus-6 (which ranked 102nd out of 125 FBS teams). Perhaps the most astonishing stat of 2014 is that Iowa's offense lost more fumbles (15) than any other year under Ferentz while its defense recovered the fewest (three).
In all, there were 32 fumbles in Iowa games last year — the Hawkeyes recovered just nine (28 percent). The 2014 failures (which also include uncharacteristic special-teams gaffes) have become a rallying point for Ferentz's third attempt at a program reboot, with fundamentals and details being at the center.
"It just gets back to a mindset and how well you take care of details," Ferentz said this week. "A lot of times takeaways are the result of good, aggressive football play and good, solid football play.
"I think turnovers are the same way. A lot of it is concentration, good judgment if you're throwing the football (and) good ball security."
Good idea: But how is it done?
Saying you want more turnovers and doing it are obviously two different things. As a starting point, Iowa has refocused on forcing mistakes after generating just 16 turnovers last season (tied for second-fewest under Ferentz, behind only the 13 by the 1-10 team of 1999 that played two fewer games) in the form of on-field drills.
"It starts in practice," defensive end Drew Ott said. "We're always trying to strip the ball — trying to rally people there, have the first guy tackle him, the second one strip it."
Defensive coordinator Phil Parker has instilled a "scoop and score" mentality on defense, even on incomplete passes in practice. In another drill, someone throws a football on the ground and a slew of players dash and dive after it, trying to be the first to recover.
"It's kind of a renewed focus, a little more emphasis on it," Ott said.
But there's only so much drills can do, Ferentz acknowledged. You have to actually play solid defense to lay the groundwork for turnover creation. That was another uncharacteristic shortfall in 2014, when Iowa allowed 25.6 points a game — the most under Ferentz since 2000.
Will things change this year? In three open-to-media practices with about four hours of scrimmaging, the first-team defense didn't allow a touchdown.
Ott was asked if this defense will be better and why.
"We should be pretty solid. We've done a lot in the off-season," he said. "We've come up with a couple different schemes that help us with some things the way people have been attacking us and exposing us. Should be good in that regard."
Focusing on the edge, Illinois State
There was a follow-up question: Like the outside run?
"Yeah, the outside run," Ott grinned, having heard that topic come up for about the 100th time. "It's been killing us lately."
Teams that are able to get to the outside with the running attack decimated the Hawkeyes last year. The five teams that did it best — Indiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Tennessee — went 4-1 against Iowa in averaging 273.6 rushing yards a game and 5.8 per carry.
As fate would have it, Iowa's opponent Saturday is terrific at attacking the edge. In quarterback Tre Roberson (4,250 yards of total offense in 2014) and running back Marshaun Coprich (an FCS-best 2,274 rushing yards a year ago), Illinois State returns two electric playmakers.
Roberson, who made his first career college start at Kinnick Stadium in 2011 while quarterbacking Indiana, is the ring leader. The transfer rushed for 1,029 yards a season ago, and Illinois State coach Brock Spack said "his arm is very underrated, in my opinion."
"He's really a threat running the football," Ferentz said of Roberson. "If he breaks contain, he can throw it on the run, and he throws it really well from the pocket, too."
Setting an edge is most effective when the defensive ends can win one-on-one battles, with defensive ends Ott and Nate Meier key. New starting outside linebacker Ben Niemann will play a big part, too.
"To set the edge, you've just got to come off the ball at the line of scrimmage and get the offensive guy and make him stand him up," Ott said, "so the running back can't run around him and forces him (inside).
"It's that first second — not letting him knock you back, so the running back can't run by you."
So, Saturday, we'll get a really good look at how much Iowa's defense is improved.
If it's better, the turnovers might follow. But it'll take a unified effort to stop Roberson and Co. Iowa starting cornerback Greg Mabin said the Hawkeyes have watched "pretty much the whole (2014) season" of film on Illinois State.
"We've had a lot of time to prepare for this," Mabin said. "What makes him so good is he's a dual-threat quarterback and he's got a cannon for an arm. ... He's not afraid to make a mistake."
And if he does – Iowa needs to make the Redbirds pay.
TURNOVER MARGIN AT IOWA UNDER KIRK FERENTZ
Ranked from best to worst in Ferentz's 16 previous seasons as head coach (with turnovers lost, gained and overall team record):
2002: +15 (Lost: 5 INTs, 11 fumbles; Gained: 20 INTs, 11 fumbles; 11-2 record)
2004: +13 (Lost: 14 INTs, 5 fumbles; Gained: 17 INTs, 15 fumbles; 10-2 record)
2010: +13 (Lost: 6 INTs, 5 fumbles; Gained: 19 INTs, 5 fumbles; 8-5 record)
2012: +12 (Lost: 8 INTs, 3 fumbles; Gained: 10 INTs, 13 fumbles; 4-8 record)
2008: +8 (Lost: 11 INTs, 13 fumbles; Gained: 23 INTs, 9 fumbles; 9-4 record)
2007: +8 (Lost: 7 INTs, 6 fumbles; Gained: 14 INTs, 7 fumbles; 6-6 record)
2003: +4 (Lost: 10 INTs, 11 fumbles; Gained: 13 INTs, 12 fumbles; 10-3 record)
2009: +2 (Lost: 20 INTs, 8 fumbles; Gained: 21 INTs, 9 fumbles; 11-2 record)
2011: +1 (Lost: 8 INTs, 10 fumbles; Gained: 10 INTs, 9 fumbles; 7-6 record)
2001: Even (Lost: 13 INTs, 8 fumbles; Gained: 13 INTs, 8 fumbles; 7-5 record)
2013: -1 (Lost: 15 INTs, 7 fumbles; Gained: 13 INTs, 8 fumbles; 8-5 record)
2005: -1 (Lost: 8 INTs, 9 fumbles; Gained: 10 INTs, 6 fumbles; 7-5 record)
2000: -3 (Lost: 11 INTs, 9 fumbles; Gained: 9 INTs, 8 fumbles; 3-9 record)
1999: -4 (Lost: 9 INTs, 8 fumbles; Gained: 6 INTs, 7 fumbles; 1-10 record)
2014: -6 (Lost: 7 INTs, 15 fumbles; Gained: 13 INTs, 3 fumbles; 7-6 record)
2006: -11 (Lost: 19 INTs, 12 fumbles; Gained: 14 INTs, 6 fumbles; 6-7 record)
IOWA VS. ILLINOIS STATE
When, where: 11 a.m. Saturday at Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City
Television: Big Ten Network (announcers: Kevin Kugler, Matt Millen and Lisa Byington)
The spread: Iowa is favored by 9
The forecast: Sunny, with a high of 93 degrees and light wind.