LINCOLN, Neb. — To correctly analyze this 2015 Iowa football team requires an appreciation that’s tough to grasp in a sports culture easily influenced by ESPN highlights and one-sentence talking points.
And with that, Kirk Ferentz presented this analogy after Friday’s 28-20 win at Nebraska: The 12-0 Hawkeyes are college football’s version of the San Antonio Spurs.
The Spurs have captured five NBA championships since 1999 — incidentally, the same year Ferentz became Iowa’s head coach — behind a brand of teamwork, good ball movement, defense and, uh, winning. The Spurs have never been linked with flash, a repeated dig taken at the 2015 Hawkeyes.
“I don’t know what we did. I mean, all we’re doing is playing,” Ferentz, Iowa’s version of Gregg Popovich, said Friday. “That’s all we’re doing. It seems to me that if you watch our team play, and you like football and you like camaraderie and teamwork, which, when I watch sports, that’s what I really enjoy watching … It’s about the teamwork and relationships.
“When you get teams that are like that, that’s when you have a chance to do something that you’re not supposed to do. I don’t know why people wouldn’t like that, but (there are) probably people who don’t like the San Antonio Spurs, too.”
Like making the extra pass in hoops, this Iowa team has continued to go about its business in a unified manner. Here are five of the under-appreciated aspects of Iowa’s 12-0 run:
The family feel
If you’ve still got last week’s Iowa-Purdue game on the DVR, fast forward to the touchdown pass from C.J. Beathard to tight end Henry Krieger Coble that gave the Hawkeyes a 33-13 lead.
One of the first teammates to greet Krieger Coble was right guard Jordan Walsh. The two have lived together for five years, ever since they were randomly paired together as true freshmen strangers. Watch how happy Walsh is for his friend, and that moment will encapsulate the 11-for-1 mentality of these Hawkeyes that began in January.
“I’ve never been a part of a team like this. Everybody fights for each other, really,” center Austin Blythe said. “No individuals. A total team effort. That’s why we’re here at 12-0 now.”
Center of deserving attention
When the all-Big Ten Conference offensive teams are announced Tuesday night, it’ll be a stunner if Blythe isn’t the first-team center. The fifth-year senior from Williamsburg has been a punishing, stabilizing force in the middle of Iowa’s offensive line.
And more often than not, when the Hawkeyes uncork a big-chunk running play, the 6-foot-3, 290-pound Blythe is racing downfield, too. He’s been asked to be more mobile in offensive line coach Brian Ferentz’s first season as run-game coordinator.
Don’t be surprised if Blythe also enters the final discussion for the Rimington Trophy, presented to college football’s top center.
“The first time he did anything on campus, he did it pretty well, whether it was playing guard, center,” Kirk Ferentz said. “So I'm not saying it's easy for him, but he's really got good ability, I think rare ability, as a lineman. But the bigger thing is the growth of him as a football player and then most recently as a leader,”
The full package
This isn’t the first time it’s been mentioned, but it’s worth repeating. Injuries to fullbacks Adam Cox and Macon Plewa a year ago were key factors in Iowa’s disappointing 7-6 season.
Both bruisers have been healthy and effective as fifth-year seniors. They have one carry between them (a 3-yarder by Plewa against Purdue) this season among hundreds of snaps. But their contributions have been truly immeasurable.
Take Friday’s second half as an example. Jordan Canzeri scored long touchdown runs on back-to-back carries, each behind a different fullback. The first, a 29-yarder, was paved by Plewa on a slant run to the left side. The next, a 68-yarder to the left on an inside zone, was led by Cox.
“All they do is just mash their heads on every play,” Beathard said. “Those guys are some of the most unselfish guys on the team. They don’t get any credit, but they go in and get their heads beat to crap on every play.”
Halftime Adjustments 101
The togetherness on this Iowa team extends to the coaching staff. Every key assistant has been in the program for at least three years, and the subtle changes made by Ferentz in the offseason — increasing his son’s role, moving LeVar Woods to tight ends coach and freeing up Jim Reid to have total rein of the linebackers — have had a unifying effect.
Iowa has owned the second halves of games this year. The Hawkeyes have yet to trail in the fourth quarter of any game, thanks in part to laying down the hammer out of the halftime locker room. Iowa has outscored opponents 72-39 in the third quarter, including 14-7 on Friday.
The two Canzeri second-half runs were a product of halftime adjustments after Nebraska held the Hawkeyes to 52 rushing yards on 15 carries. Iowa’s first three snaps of the third quarter resulted in 101 yards and two touchdowns.
“They really rendered us ineffective in the first half,” Ferentz said. “The coaches did a great job of talking like they always do, made some adjustments. That was a result of a good halftime discussion.”
Don’t call him a game manager
Beathard’s anointment as starting quarterback for the 2015 season came with the popular commentary that he’d dazzle with a bigger arm than Jake Rudock, but that the Hawkeyes would have to live with increased interceptions because of his daring style.
But through 12 games, Beathard has thrown three interceptions. Three. He hasn’t been picked off in 129 attempts, dating to the second quarter against Northwestern on Oct. 17. The junior has accounted for 20 touchdowns (14 passing, six rushing) on the stat sheet.
Ferentz has bristled at the notion that Beathard is a “game manager.”
“I think he's pretty good,” Ferentz said last week. “I'm glad he's our quarterback.”