Iowa football's Kirk Ferentz a big fan of Mark Stoops' Kentucky program: 'Almost like looking in the mirror'
Friday morning's Citrus Bowl news conference had a much friendlier feeling than your typical bowl game media event. Head coaches Kirk Ferentz (Iowa) and Mark Stoops (Kentucky) exchanged funny banter throughout the near-30 minute session and concluded it with another friendly conversation before they went their separate ways.
It's not hard to understand why: Stoops briefly played under Ferentz at Iowa in the late 1980s and the two's relationship extends beyond football into their personal lives. And on the field, their teams' identities is closely aligned.
In several ways, Iowa and Kentucky are similar. And the mutual respect between programs was on display on Friday.
"Almost like looking in the mirror," Kirk Ferentz said. "We don't run the exact same schemes but there are a lot of similar traits in the programs. The guys compete. They play hard, compete and they make you earn things. They make the opponent earn what they get and I think that's a goal any coach has any time you play."
Both teams' identities begin with physical play at the line of scrimmage. Offensive line success is well-documented at Iowa, and that's continued this year with center Tyler Linderbaum earning consensus All-American honors and the Rimington Trophy for the nation's best center.
Since Stoops took over Kentucky in 2013, the Wildcats have placed an emphasis on recruiting bigger, stronger players up front. It's paid dividends this year: Kentucky placed two members on the All-SEC first team in center Luke Fortner and tackle Darian Kinnard. On Friday, Stoops said that foundation came from when he was playing at Iowa. And Ferentz was the offensive line coach.
Setting the line of scrimmage is critical for both teams on Saturday. A game within the game will be the strength-on-strength matchup between Kentucky's Top 5 SEC rushing attack (206 yards per game) against Iowa's No. 3 ranked Big Ten rush defense (114 yards per game allowed).
"Both (the Big Ten and SEC) are line-of-scrimmage leagues," Mark Stoops said. " I can remember coach (Ferentz), all the way back to him being a position coach at the time I was there. He set the tone at the University of Iowa a long, long time ago. I will not date him on that, but it was a long time ago, and he did a great job with offensive line play. We are proud to carry that tradition at Kentucky. We always want to be better. But you've got to be big, you've got to be physical. And that's certainly Iowa, and that's certainly something at Kentucky we're trying to be."
Where Kentucky's made a significant stride this year is improving in their vertical passing game. Offseason additions via the transfer portal Will Levis (quarterback, Penn State) and Wan'Dale Robinson (wide receiver, Nebraska) have added an element to their scheme that will challenge Iowa's secondary.
Stoops noted on Friday that many of the same principles that's made Iowa successful this year (school-record 24 interceptions) are similar to the concepts he learned there as a Hawkeye defensive back. But the familiarity doesn't make the challenge any easier.
"We started watching film and immediately put a smile on my face," Stoops said. "Well, it was a frown and a smile. Because the frown was, 'Oh, damn, they are pretty darn good.' But the smile was, I love the fundamentals of the game, and Phil (Parker) and his defense and the entire program you see that the minute you put on the film. So for me to go back, and haven't competed against the Hawks in a long time, but seeing the black and gold, and seeing the way they play fundamentally, you have an appreciation as a coach."
There's several opportunities present that both teams don't see often: A chance for the fourth 11-win season in Iowa history and the fourth 10-win season in Kentucky history. Whoever wins the game will carry the nation's longest winning streak against non-conference opponents and the first four-game bowl win streak for either school.
"We certainly feel it is a privilege to be here," Ferentz said. "Our guys are excited to play in another game. Everybody feels that way. To earn a bowl bid like the Citrus Bowl, really proud of that and feel very, very fortunate to be here and to play an opponent like Kentucky. (Bowls) are just a great, great reward. Been around for a few of them now, and when Mark was a player, even in the '80s, they were really special. That has not changed at all, and just a great reward for a great season.
"Great opportunity for the players on both teams to be involved and great activities, things you normally wouldn't get exposed to. We have had a great, great week, and it will be better if we play well tomorrow. That's our goal, and we know it's going to be a tough challenge."
Kennington Lloyd Smith III covers Iowa Hawkeyes football and men's basketball for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at email@example.com.