Iowa has reached the bye after eight games this season. After starting 2-0 and soaring to No. 11 in the Coaches Poll, the Hawkeyes sit 5-3 overall — 3-2 in Big Ten play — and have fallen out of the national spotlight. Iowa travels to Penn State on Nov. 5. It’s a good time to review and grade the Hawkeyes’ season to date.
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Defining good coaching is as nebulous as it is apparent. You know it when you see, it but can you define it?
There’s no question in my mind Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz pulled off the nation’s best coaching job in 2015. He made the tough decision to sack two-year starting quarterback Jake Rudock in favor of C.J. Beathard. Ferentz switched practice schedules, opened a wider window to his thoughts, and his players flourished. The 2015 Hawkeyes hardly boasted great talent but they joined Ferentz’s 2004 squad as the most resilient team in his two decades at Iowa.
The problem with 12-win teams is they often lead to unfulfilling encores. Entering this season, nobody in Iowa City would be happy with anything less than a Big Ten West Division title. Then you include returnees like Beathard, consensus All-America CB Desmond King, eight other defensive players with significant experience and five offensive linemen with starting experience, and fans saw repeat on the horizon.
Those of us who observe, scrutinize and opine about this program understand the margin of success at Iowa is narrower than at other programs. The modest expectation was that last year’s backups would adequately replace Iowa’s hard-nosed group of seniors. Only one of Iowa’s departing group was drafted, the rest largely were role players on the field but formed the foundation of Iowa’s success.
Depth often determines the difference between a championship-caliber season and a midpack finish in Iowa City. And depth this year has been an issue. When two offensive linemen were withheld for injuries against North Dakota State, their replacements struggled. When leading receiver Matt VandeBerg lost his season to a broken foot, the passing game cracked, too.
Good coaching can provide a deodorant to those stinkers. Unfortunately for Iowa on offense, the braintrust limited its overall potential by not expanding the box of possibilities.
Without VandeBerg, Plan B needed to include changes in the passing scheme. Iowa’s best playmaker is King. He had 8 interceptions last year. This year he has just 1, but he returned it for a touchdown. He ranks sixth nationally in kickoff return average at 32.0 yards per return. Ferentz continues to eschew any consideration of King playing on offense, citing overuse. That’s understandable in normal circumstances. But these are extraordinary times. When the world sees Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers impacting the game in three phases, it’s not hard to envision King performing a similar role with the Hawkeyes. If nothing else, let him line up in the slot and wave his hands.
Likewise, why let third-down running back Derrick Mitchell sit on the bench when he could shift back to receiver? Why not get running backs LeShun Daniels and Akrum Wadley on the field at the same time? Why not incorporate an occasional zone-read look with former quarterbacks-turned-receivers Riley McCarron and Jay Scheel? Now that he’s healthy, why not have Jonathan Parker run jet sweeps from the slot once again?
I’m all in on the overall Ferentz philosophy of winning at the line-of-scrimmage and playing sound, conservative football. Traditionally, that keeps Iowa in games and results in a cumulative effect in most victories. But during Big Ten play thus far, the Hawkeye coaching staff has needed to jump-start the offense to force defenders to respect Iowa’s versatility. Instead, the team’s predictability in nearly every aspect — and especially on third down — has the offense ranked 113th overall. For a unit with eight returning starters, that’s way too low.
On the plus side, Iowa realized its offensive line struggled to corral pass rushers and reshuffled its alignment. Also, when the defense failed to stop the run early on, the effort and coaching was obvious in returning the unit to respectability.
Overall, Iowa is 5-3 and has lost to decent opponents, all by one score. The sky isn’t falling, contrary to what many fans believe. But the team had the potential to win at least two of those losses, and a little offensive ingenuity might have had the Hawkeyes at 7-1 right now.
COACHING GRADE: C
Iowa bye week grades: Overall, it’s an unsatisfying and unremarkable season
Iowa bye week grades: Erratic passing game holds back Hawkeyes offense
Iowa bye week grades: Defense finding its way as season progresses
Iowa bye week grades: Desmond King putting the special in special teams