How does Iowa football fix its offense? That's been Brian Ferentz's focus in Hawkeyes' off week
Every football coach has play calls they wish they could have back.
Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz is no different and this week, more than usual, had time to revisit some of his decisions from last weekend's upset loss to Purdue.
Iowa had one of their worst offensive showings of the season last Saturday. and Ferentz's play-calling has come under fire. The Hawkeyes managed only 271 yards of total offense and did not control the time-of-possession battle.
The bye week is an opportunity to reflect. Part of that reflection as a coach is looking within to personal performance just as much as the team's. And that is the hardest part according to Ferentz.
He serves as the Hawkeyes’ offensive coordinator and play caller. Where Iowa ranks statistically, how they perform on Saturdays and how they progress through the season falls on him first and foremost. As a result, the first place he has to look for their successes and failures is himself.
He's confident in himself but says he understands that his offense has underwhelmed.
"It's a lot easier to point fingers at everybody else," Ferentz said. "Saying that everybody needs to do their job a lot better — I'm pretty good at mine. That's another thing I've learned over time — I'm not. I need to make sure I'm looking at what I'm doing all the time and seeing if it can be better."
From a team perspective, the reflection for Iowa's offense starts at one question: Are we hitting our goals and metrics?
And then: Why or why not?
The answer is a mix of yes and no. Iowa's third-down conversion rate (38.6%) isn't meeting their mark but is an improvement from last year's 35.6% rate. They rank fourth in the Big Ten in red zone scoring an seventh in scoring offense but their total statistical outputs in total yardage are last.
The evaluation process lasts the first day or two of the open week and then comes the equally important part: Converting information to action.
"You're not making wholesale changes or re-inventing the wheel," Ferentz said. "You're tweaking some things here, moving some people or whatever it may be. We're going to look at some of those things in practice and try to move forward."
Iowa turned the ball over a season-high four times against Purdue, all four were interceptions by junior quarterback Spencer Petras which is also his career-high.
Prior to Saturday's game, Petras season stat line was much improved from the 2020 season. Following the Purdue game, his 2021 output — 1,333 passing yards, 59.5% completion percentage and nine touchdowns to five interceptions in seven games — is now very similar to his 2020 output in eight games — 1,569 passing yards, 57% completion percentage and nine touchdowns to six interceptions.
Statistics do not tell the entire story of Petras' maturation as a quarterback, however. The most important statistic to Ferentz is his quarterback's career record (14-3).
That's not to say Petras is blameless during offensive lulls this season. Overall, it's a collective effort. As Ferentz noted, when a team wins, the quarterback has a big part in it. When they lose, the quarterback has a big role in it as well.
"He's won six games and lost one, and I try to remind him of that," Ferentz said. "The adjustments are I think we have to protect better, we have to get more open for him and here's the reality: When there's makeable throws and we don't make them then he's responsible for that and we had one of those early in the game the other day."
Iowa must establish the run
One immediate fix Iowa's offense can make to take the pressure of Petras is establishing their running game.
Iowa's struggles there have been a focus throughout the season. Individually, junior running back Tyler Goodson is fourth in the Big Ten in rushing yards (562) but overall, the unit hasn't found the consistency it had last year. The Hawkeyes rank 11th in the conference in total rushing yards (816) and 13th in yards per rush (3.1) and yards per game (116).
Some of that is due to the stacked boxes they've been from defenses. Some is due to issues along the offensive line. But Ferentz isn't making excuses.
Iowa must run the ball better in the second half of the season, and that responsibility begins with him and the coaching staff.
"When things are not going the way you'd like them to go, you have to fall back on the basics," Ferentz. "We've tried to find what we do well, we don't want to put too much pressure on guys that haven't played a whole lot and try to keep the pictures consistent for them. Try to keep those viewing windows smaller because as you get older, you can handle a lot more.
I think that comes back and falls on the coaches and me as the coordinator to make sure we're putting them in positions to be successful."
Iowa offense has to make the most of its possessions
Statistics aside, another step in improving the offense is continuing to take advantage of opportunities and better generating momentum that the defense can build on. Ferentz referenced the third quarter against Purdue as an example of the offense not holding up their end of the program's "team football" mantra.
Three weeks ago against Maryland, down 7-3 near the end of the first quarter, Iowa's offense executed a touchdown drive to go ahead 10-7 and the team never looked back. Against Penn State, down 17-3, the offense executed another touchdown drive to reduce the deficit to 17-10 and stopped the bleeding.
That same type of opportunity presented itself against Purdue and they did not capitalize. Purdue led 14-7 at halftime and opened the second half with a field goal to extend the lead to 17-7.
Iowa's offense had two immediate chances to respond but did not.
"We hit (tight end Sam LaPorta) for 12 yards then three plays later we're punting," Ferentz said. "So that's four plays and we don't have anything to show for it. Then the defense comes up with another turnover, still 17-7, and we go three-and-out and then from there the game was a little bit differently at that point.
"To me, that's the part I look at. I just think it ties back to who we're going to be as a unit, those are the situations where we need to come up with something."
Ways to solve Iowa's concerns on offense
What are possible solutions to Iowa's offensive concerns? Aside from better execution.
The Hawkeyes would benefit from more involvement from junior receiver Tyrone Tracy Jr. Ferentz stated that Tracy is one of their top playmakers and finding ways to get him the ball has become a priority.
What about Iowa's "Wildcat" package with Goodson at quarterback? That formation's been used sparingly this season but could be a look Iowa uses more. And along the offensive line, next week's game might be the healthiest they've been all season if guard Cody Ince is ready to play by then.
The off week also allows for more time to experiment. True freshmen receivers Arland Bruce IV and Keagan Johnson have emerged as threats in different ways.
Could Iowa begin to build them into gameplans more?
Iowa's next game will stretch the offense's capabilities just as their previous opponent did. Wisconsin ranks first in the Big Ten in total defense (Purdue was second), and the challenge is compounded by the fact that the Hawkeyes will play on the road in a hostile environment.
The stakes are high on Oct. 30. Iowa is ranked No. 11 and the most important rankings — the College Football Playoff rankings — start coming out the following Tuesday.
So what tweaks will fans see next week?
Ferentz is keeping that top secret. But expect something.
"Can you use you personnel better? Can you affect the defense in a different way?," Ferentz said. "You're just trying to figure out: Can we do what we do the absolute best in a better way or can we make it look a little bit different so we can keep doing it?
"It can be a shift, motion, personnel move or a formation. It could be a person doing something someone else has done but maybe they can do it a little bit better."
Kennington Smith is the Iowa Hawkeyes beat writer for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at email@example.com