Leistikow: How Iowa football turned it around after drubbing at Penn State

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The biggest mystery of the Iowa football season has an answer.

How on earth did the Hawkeyes look the way they did Nov. 5 at Penn State, then look the way they did seven nights later against Michigan?

Offensive line coach Brian Ferentz, who also coordinates the Iowa run game that peaked in the final three games of an 8-4 season, spilled the beans this week.

At first, you might be disappointed by Ferentz’s simplistic answer.

But keep reading.

“We weren’t doing anything much different at the end of the year,” the fifth-year Hawkeye assistant said. “Certainly, the execution was much better. And I know nobody wants to hear that, that it’s about execution. But it really is about execution.”

Penn State Nittany Lions running back Saquon Barkley led the torching of Iowa on Nov. 5 in a 41-14 win at Beaver Stadium. A week later, the Hawkeyes turned it around.

Here’s the part, though, that even puzzled Iowa’s coaches behind the scenes.

Coming off a bye week following a 17-9 home loss to Wisconsin that dropped Iowa to 5-3, they were seeing progress in practice.

Then, Penn State embarrassed Iowa 41-14, almost tripling the Hawkeyes in total offense at Beaver Stadium.

Encouragement was replaced team-wide by doubt.

Iowa offensive line coach Brian Ferentz explained how the Hawkeyes turned their season around.

“That’s what made it such a long flight home,” Brian Ferentz said. “You feel like, 'Hey, you had a couple good weeks, you’re on the right track, we’re making improvement.' And then you start to question it on that plane ride home. Because, boy, none of it showed up tonight. Maybe less than none of it.”

Ferentz continued with some gallows humor.

“Really hard to even look at that night and say, 'Boy, here’s a positive we can take out of this,'” he said. “I guess the positive is, our buses didn’t crash, our plane made it back, and we were all here on Sunday. That would be about it.”

Less than a month later, the Hawkeyes would be accepting a bid to a top-10 bowl game, the Jan. 2 Outback, to face SEC East Division champ Florida.

Here’s the secret of how Iowa turned it all around and stunned then-No. 3 Michigan, 14-13, as a 24-point underdog Nov. 12 at Kinnick Stadium.

“What really happened is guys just stayed the course,” Ferentz said. “A big part of any kind of success up front is belief in what you’re doing. At no point do I think anybody in our group or anybody on our offense questioned, 'Hey, are we doing the right things?'

“When you get knocked down once, it’s easy to get up. What about when you get knocked down twice? Will you keep getting up? And they did. And then you start knocking other people down. And then they kept doing it. They didn’t take any mercy on them, which is also good.”

Ferentz was talking about his position group, the offensive line, but it was reflective of the whole program.

He sensed things were going to turn around on Iowa’s first play from scrimmage against Michigan.

“We ran an insert play (to LeShun Daniels Jr.) that went for about 7 yards or so (actually, eight),” Ferentz said. “The crowd … it was just a sense in the building that like, 'OK, this is going to be a fight.'”

Suddenly, the execution was better everywhere. The pre-Penn State progress was suddenly showing up.

Better late than never.

A rushing offense that was held to 30 yards at Penn State generated 690 over the next three weeks.

A defense that allowed 599 yards to Penn State held Michigan, Illinois and Nebraska to a combined 616 in three games.

Ferentz, the son of Iowa’s longtime head coach, Kirk, talked about football’s brutal side, how competitive nature is at the core of determining success.

Within that, the mystery can be solved.

Iowa fought. And long-awaited execution followed.

“We got up. It was clear from the opening kickoff (against Michigan), that we were there to play,” Ferentz said. “And that’s what you worry about coming out of State College. Did they break our backs, or are we going to keep fighting? And you don’t know that for sure. Until you know.”