Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz has no illusions about how difficult the challenge will be this week.
The Iowa State defense that his Hawkeyes will be facing at 4 p.m. Saturday (Fox-TV) got better with each game last season after a 44-41 Iowa win that Ferentz called “an outlier.”
“I have the utmost respect for those guys and the way they approach their football team,” Ferentz said of Cyclones coach Matt Campbell and defensive coordinator Jon Heacock. “Most importantly, they play very hard, defensively, and they rally to the football.”
Iowa State’s 2017 season included victories over top-10 opponents Oklahoma and TCU, capped by a 21-20 Liberty Bowl victory over Memphis.
Ferentz, speaking on KxNO’s “HawkCentral” radio program Wednesday, went out of his way to praise his in-state rivals, particularly third-year head coach Campbell.
“This is a really sound defensive football team, and it starts with, obviously, the head coach, who’s a very good football coach and has a tough, hard-minded background,” Ferentz said.
Ferentz, in his second season as Iowa’s offensive coordinator, said he was impressed with the work Campbell and Heacock did together at Toledo. He said that philosophy has clearly carried over to Ames, to the point where he’s not sure exactly what his Hawkeye offense will be facing Saturday.
“They’ve found a way to defend what they need to defend on a weekly basis,” Ferentz said of the Cyclones. “They were morphing and they were becoming a good defense in that conference (the Big 12). I thought, last year, they certainly took the next step in doing that.”
The issue for Ferentz and the Hawkeye coaching staff is that the Cyclones played only five minutes Saturday before lightning canceled their game against South Dakota State.
“You’d have a better bead on personnel if they played a full game,” Ferentz said.
“They put guys on the field. We know who those guys were.”
'If I get hit by a bus tomorrow…' Ferentz offers the biggest lesson from one-game suspensions
Ferentz spoke at length about the four Hawkeye players who were suspended from Saturday’s season-opening win over Northern Illinois. Those four — offensive tackles Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs, and defensive tackles Cedrick Lattimore and Brady Reiff — will return to action Saturday.
“There’s going to have to be accountability, and I think everyone in our football team needs to understand that there will be no bending of the rules. This is a football team; there will be expectations,” Ferentz said of the disciplinary measures, which included community service for the players during Saturday’s game.
But Ferentz said the lessons extend beyond just the suspended players. He sees a broader message for the entire Hawkeye team — that no one should get too secure in their roles.
“All of us are replaceable — that’s where you have to start,” Ferentz said. “This is a tremendous privilege to be able to do this and be a part of this program. But at some point, we’re all going to get replaced.
“If I get hit by a bus tomorrow, I promise you that we’ll kick the game off at 4 p.m. on Saturday and somebody will be calling the plays — probably better than me.”
Ferentz defends wide receivers, says they alone weren’t reason passing attack struggled
Iowa’s passing attack was anything but dynamic Saturday, producing a mere 143 yards. The wide receivers were particularly quiet, with senior Nick Easley and sophomore Brandon Smith failing to register a single reception. Those are two of the Hawkeyes’ top three options at that position.
Ferentz acknowledged that the results were not ideal, but was protective of his receivers, saying you have to look beyond them to understand all that went wrong.
He did feel the pass protection was up to par Saturday.
But junior quarterback Nate Stanley wasn’t as sharp as he needs to be, Ferentz said. And it started with the first pass of the game, which was intended for Smith on the sideline but ended up going off his fingertips. It was one of at least four dropped passes by Iowa receivers.
“We got an opportunity to get him a catch out there on the edge — not a great ball, (but) probably catchable,” Ferentz said. “When you have multiple things that are causing issues in the passing game, it’s hard to find a rhythm.”
Last season, Stanley found a terrific rhythm against Iowa State, passing for five touchdowns. Ferentz would certainly love to see that kind of production again Saturday. But he knows the Cyclones' defense will likely provide a stiffer test this time.
Hawkeyes still monitoring status of starting running back, but have other solid options
Iowa’s starting running back, Ivory Kelly-Martin, suffered an ankle injury in the second half of Saturday’s game. His availability this week is uncertain, Ferentz said.
“We’re still trying to figure out where we’re going to be in the backfield. He’s working awfully hard to get back from that little nick,” Ferentz said of Kelly-Martin, who rushed for 62 yards and a touchdown before departing Saturday. “Whoever’s available on Saturday, we’re going with them. If it’s Ivory, great.”
The Hawkeyes also used Mekhi Sargent (12 carries, 40 yards) and Toren Young (eight, 84) against Northern Illinois, so the backfield does appear to have strong depth.
Young, in particular, was impressive, with a 40-yard run that was Iowa’s longest play of the game.
“He’s probably not the fastest back we have. He’s probably not the most elusive and agile back we have,” Ferentz said of Young, a 5-foot-11, 221-pound sophomore. “The best thing he does is get on the football field and carry the ball. We needed a spark, and Toren Young was the one who went in there and gave it to us.”