IOWA CITY, Iowa — Old Kirk made a comeback to Iowa’s football complex two weeks ago, and it was sorely needed.
In the days that followed a 38-31 loss to Northwestern, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz sat down with his 16-member leadership group and stressed a renewed focus toward accountability. Practices would return to the basics with a major helping of fundamentals. Energy and urgency were emphasized. It all was an effort to steer the season back into the right direction before it veered completely off the highway.
That led to a pair of road wins. One was a grinding 14-7 victory at Minnesota, a game where the defense stopped the run and the offense gained enough traction late for the win. The other was a 49-35 pseudo-blowout at Purdue where the Hawkeyes rushed for 365 yards and held the Boilermakers to 46 yards on the ground.
Neither victory was anything flashy. The results reflected an intense focus on improving the process. That’s Old Kirk.
“Yeah, I guess you could kind of say that,” Iowa running back LeShun Daniels said. “Obviously he knows what it takes for us to be successful and stuff like that. Whatever he says that we should be doing and how we should be going about things, we’re obviously going to listen to him and try to apply it.”
Iowa (5-2 overall, 3-1 Big Ten) needed Old Kirk, and it worked. But entering Saturday’s game against No. 10 Wisconsin (4-2, 1-2) , the Hawkeyes need a dose of New Kirk.
Remember the New Kirk fad from last year? Coined by The Gazette sportswriter Marc Morehouse, New Kirk described a Glasnost-type feel around the program. Ferentz was more accommodating of media and added depth to his answers. He seemed to enjoy the interactions, although the unbeaten regular season helped, too.
His media interludes were just part of the changes. Iowa altered its practice routine from afternoon to morning. The players switched days off from Monday to Thursday, which allowed them to rest their legs as they approached the game. Iowa defensive tackle Nathan Bazata referred to that schedule as “still amazing” because it helped the players organize their lives for the better.
But what the fans defined as New Kirk was set on the third series in 2015. Facing fourth-and-10 at the Illinois State 30-yard line, Ferentz called for a fake field goal with kicker Marshall Koehn. The attempt fell 2 yards short of a first down, yet the majority of Kinnick Stadium fans stood and applauded the effort.
New Kirk was fun, vibrant and, most important, unpredictable. Against an opponent this week that appears slightly better in most areas, New Kirk needs to reappear.
Unpredictability forced Old Kirk to re-evaluate some of his tendencies. Old Kirk’s principles will never change, and that’s a good thing. A developmental school in the Upper Midwest like Iowa needs to place a premium on growth and line-of-scrimmage play. The same tenets are applied at Wisconsin, Iowa’s football doppelganger.
But Old Kirk twice was depantsed at Kinnick Stadium when opponents flipped the script. In a 2010 slugfest against the Badgers, Iowa led by six points with 6:23 left. Facing fourth-and-4 from his 26, Wisconsin punter Brad Nortman faked a punt and rushed 17 yards in an open sea of nothingness. The Badgers then converted two more fourth-down attempts on a 16-play, 80-yard drive to win 31-30.
In 2013, Michigan State was set to punt on the first play of the fourth quarter leading 20-14. On fourth-and-7 from his 37, punter Mike Sadler took the snap and ran to his right for 25 yards. That led to a field goal and a 26-14 win.
The play was called “Hey Diddle Diddle, send Sadler up the middle.” It was part nursery rhyme, part horror flick. Like the Wisconsin fake punt in 2010, it also was filled with risk. Also like Nortman’s gamble, it was filled with reward. The wins propelled both teams to Big Ten titles and Rose Bowl appearances.
“I just wanted to make sure that our players know that they’re at risk on the football field,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said afterward, just 50 feet from Ferentz’s news conference. “They’re going to be at risk. Sometimes the coach has to take a risk, too.”
This is the week for Ferentz to take a similar risk. Wisconsin will be the best team Iowa has faced to date. It’s a rivalry game with so much to gain — and lose — in the West Division race. The winner might stand as the favorite; the loser is almost out before Halloween.
So loosen up future Pro Bowl cornerback Desmond King at wide receiver. Line up quarterback C.J. Beathard at punter (Ron Coluzzi also wears 16). Shift former high school quarterback Jay Scheel behind center in a wildcat formation. Blitz on first down. Maybe even attempt an onside kick.
If ever Old Kirk has saved some New Kirk trickery for this season, Saturday is the time to use it. Otherwise, you lose it.