No Vertical, No Chance
In last week’s installment of ‘Is This the Ferentz Era Low Point?’, I showed how poor this year’s offensive numbers have been in comparison to the worst Ferentz era offenses. In case you have forgotten, here is how the most challenged Ferentz era offenses ranked compared to the rest of the teams in the FBS for the years listed:
2007: 109 out of 119, bottom 8.4%
2004: 101 out of 117, bottom 13.7%
2000: 99 out of 114, bottom 13.2%
1999: 97 out of 114, bottom 14.9%
After Iowa’s loss at Michigan, the 2012 Iowa offense has now dropped to 110th in the nation out of 120 teams, which puts them in the bottom 8.34%. The 1999 offense averaged 300 per game and the 2007 offense averaged 316 yards per game. The 2012 Iowa offense averages 320 yards per game, but when you compare each of those offenses to the rest of college football for their given years as I have done, one can make a very strong case that we are witnessing the worst offense of the Ferentz ere in year 14 of his tenure.
While the injuries to Brandon Scherff, Andrew Donnal and Brad Rogers have really hurt the Hawkeye offensive ‘attack’, Iowa was still ranked 98th in both total offense and scoring offense through six games and they were 99th in passing offense. Scherff and Donnal went down in the seventh game, but it’s not like Iowa had played a murderer’s row of defensive stalwarts through six games, either.
Yes, Iowa made a coordinator change this past offseason, but it’s not like they are the only team to have done that. Our neighbors to the West made a chance when their OC left Ames to Ohio State. Iowa State has had its struggles on offense this year, too; they rank 90th in total offense (370 yards per game) and 83rd in scoring offense. Yet when they met a bad defense this week, they torched it for over 500 yards and 27 first downs, scoring 51 points. When Iowa met a bad defense on the road (Indiana) the offense scored just 14 points.
Oh by the way; Iowa State went with a freshman quarterback named Sam Richardson who went 23 of 27 for 250 yards and four touchdown passes to no interceptions. Meanwhile, James Vandenberg remains the only quarterback in all of FBS to take every single snap for his team thus far in 2012.
The Cyclones became bowl eligible with their win at Kansas and they did so by beating the beatable teams on their schedule and pulling one upset; a road win at TCU. Yes, I realize Iowa was favored in their game against Iowa State and it was played at Kinnick Stadium, but it’s an insult to Cyclone fans to say Iowa State ‘upset’ this Iowa team; Iowa State was the better team on that day and they remain the better team.
This is becoming less about how poor this Iowa team is and more about the status of the program.
Iowa now has all the nice and shiny things that a major college football program needs to keep up in the recruiting arms race. Their practice facility is state of the art and the last phase of that project will take shape over the next year. The stadium has been renovated, the athletic department receives over $20 million per year from their TV contracts and Iowa football is still one of the Top 20 revenue generators in the sport. Iowa pays its head coach nearly $4 million per year, which is near the top of the sport.
Yet in year 14 of what has been a successful Kirk Ferentz era, the Hawkeyes have fielded one of their worst football teams and have not taken any steps towards the future as it relates towards quarterback development.
Jake Rudock is the only quarterback that Iowa would have played this year, as they want to redshirt Cody Sokol and CJ Betheard. Rudock redshirted in 2011 so this year he has ridden the pine on game days and has spent a year of eligibility doing so. Everything I have heard suggests that Rudock is not ready to play Big Ten football.
Were I to wager on which player emerges as Iowa’s quarterback next year, I wouldn’t bet on Rudock. That’s nothing more than reading tea leaves, but if Iowa isn’t confident enough in him to even take a snap and hand it off to a running back late in blowout losses to Penn State (at home) and Michigan, he’ll have to make huge strides over the course of the next nine months. That’s not impossible, but we’re left with nothing more than guesses.
If an Iowa coach read that last paragraph, they would probably be irritated and say that it’s unfair to make such an assumption having never been to a Hawkeye practice this year. You know what? I wouldn’t argue with them. It is unfair to make such a guess without any first hand knowledge.
Yet, that’s where we are considering that Iowa has played James Vandenberg every step of the way this year.
Here’s another assumption based on that fact; perhaps Kirk Ferentz doesn’t believe it’s James Vandenberg’s fault. Perhaps Kirk Ferentz thinks the change in system, terminology, route schemes, etc has been so confusing for his football program that even a fifth year player who is a film study rat like Vandenberg couldn’t pick it up, so he doesn’t want to throw anyone else to the wolves this year and risk some sort of post traumatic stress disorder. Perhaps Kirk Ferentz feels it’s best to let Rudock head into the off season without any potential ‘bad memories’ and enter the quarterback battle with the other two players who will all have then had more time in the Greg Davis system, at least in practice, than James Vandenberg had heading into this year.
HawkeyeGamFilm points out that Iowa had just one target beyond 20 yards yet again this week. One. That has been such a common refrain this year; Iowa is barely attacking the field vertically. It is allowing opposing defenses to become all sorts of aggressive in their blitz schemes as well as play Iowa’s receivers more aggressively at the line of scrimmage. That throws the timing of the passing game way off and makes it even harder to run the ball.
If this is what Iowa’s offensive philosophy is going to be under Greg Davis, it will not work. It will not work. Not unless you have a defensive line like Iowa had in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2008, 2009 and 2010. Not coincidentally, those are also the only seasons under Ferentz where Iowa won at least eight football games. Each one of those defenses ranked in the Top 10 nationally in either scoring or rushing defense.
Do you think Iowa is going to bounce back next year with a defense that will approach any one of those groups? I don’t, though I do think they have a chance to be improved.
For the most part under Kirk Ferentz, the offenses have been the big let down and have relied upon a great, elite defensive effort to win the day. Those are the facts and they are indisputable.
This isn’t a fact, just a comment; it’s as though offense is a four letter word to Ferentz and that word is RISK. He places an immense amount of importance on the offense not making mistakes, not turning the ball over. I get that, as turnover margin has typically been a fair harbinger of winning and losing.
Iowa is 4th in the nation this year in fewest turnovers committed by the offense; how’s that working for you? The Hawks are 13th in the nation in turnover margin and every team ranked ahead of them has at least eight wins; Iowa has four.
Yes, this season could have been worse had Iowa not been as good on the ball security front but perhaps it could have been better had they taken more chances vertically. It might have lessened the front the rushing game had to face because a defense had no fear of getting beat over the top. It might have given James Vandenberg more time in the pocket because he wouldn’t have been facing blitzes on seemingly every snap.
To suggest that Kirk Ferentz is risk averse is not an insult nor is it an over the top generalization; he is. He has coached this program like it’s a mini-NFL outfit and he has seen good results at times, but those good results have only come when he’s had a national championship caliber defense.
Is it logical to assume that Iowa can keep up their 50% ratio they have enjoyed in that department the past 12 years? Six elite defensive clubs in 12 years? No, it’s not. The last two years have been anything but elite on defense and next year will not see an elite bunch, either.
That’s not a criticism because I think it’s unrealistic to bank on your defense being that good even half the time, but the offensive scheme this year suggests they have acted like they have one. They haven’t attacked downfield this year the way you need to with even an average defense. The number of targets beyond 20 yards is down immensely from what we saw one year ago and what we saw through much of the Ken O’Keefe era of Iowa offense, which wasn’t a great era of Iowa offense on the whole.
This simply cannot be the kind of offense Ferentz had envisioned when he hired Greg Davis, can it? While the injury to Scherff and Donnal and all that has entailed has derailed the Iowa offensive attack in the second half of the season, they weren’t targeting deep balls in the first half of the season. By and large their deep targets have remained the same before and after the injury to Scherff, Donnal and Rogers.
There is an old football adage that says ‘it’s not about the X’s and O’s, it’s about the Jim’s and the Joe’s’. That speaks to ‘lack of execution.’
Has there been significant ‘lack of execution’ issues this year? Of course. It’s been about the Jim’s and the Joe’s but also about the X’s and O’s. All of those areas are under the purview of the head coach. From recruiting, to perhaps keeping a volatile staff member around too long, to bringing in a new system that has turned Vandenberg from a 3,000 yard, 25 passing touchdown quarterback into a guy who is 96th in the nation in passing efficiency with just seven touchdown passes. To lay the majority of the blame at the feet of James Vandenberg would be unfair.
Iowa is going to have to make a few more tweaks to it’s offensive philosophy this out of season to give any of the three quarterbacks a chance to succeed next year. They are going to have to start attacking vertically more often. Given that their defense will not remind anyone of the great units from the past, they will have to take more chances on offense to have a chance to get back to bowl eligibility.
Ohio State and Wisconsin come back on Iowa’s schedule next year while a fading Penn State program and Indiana go off of it. The Hawks will play at Iowa State, whose program seems like it’s on more solid ground, especially with the new Big 12 television contract and the revenues that will be pouring in. Michigan will be a very good team and Iowa travels to play Nebraska. Iowa hosts Northern Illinois to start the season and they haven’t lost a game since Iowa beat them in the season opener. Western Michigan comes to Kinnick Stadium and they won the last time they were there.
Iowa could be a much better football team next year and still struggle to become bowl eligible. They won’t be a better football team if they continue to have schemes where receivers are running routes short of the first down marker on third downs. They won’t be a better football team if they aren’t challenging teams in the vertical passing game.
Fans look for reasons to be optimistic heading into a football offseason, especially when the season has been as bad as this one has been for Iowa.
While a lot of players are gaining experience for Iowa this year and will return next season, at this point you are trying to hang your hat on hope and faith. The hope tank seems to be running pretty low these days and faith is believing in the unseen…unseen as in passing targets beyond 20 yards.