IOWA CITY, Iowa — Freshly named by his father as Iowa’s offensive coordinator in January 2017, Brian Ferentz stood in front of reporters and preached how his offense’s success would be based on balance.
The Hawkeyes strive to run the football more than throw it. By the numbers, the offense did that in 2016 under former offensive coordinator Greg Davis with a pair of 1,000-yard running backs. But its passing game couldn’t get off the runway despite boasting a future NFL draft pick at quarterback and a future NFL wide receiver.
Attrition, injuries and a talent gap were factors in the passing woes. As much as anything, Ferentz needed to avoid the crippling predictability of the Davis era.
“He talked about tendencies,” quarterback Nate Stanley said about his offensive coordinator. “Break some tendencies that we might have had. I think he’s always thinking about stuff like that.”
Land of 10 studied every play call and personnel grouping from the 2017 season. Plays that contained penalties or took place in victory formations were discounted. For this story, Land of 10 examined the offensive changes from 2016 to 2017.
2016 third-down predictability
Davis guided Iowa’s offense from 2012 until he retired after the 2016 season. While it had its moments, the passing game never gained consistency.
Twice under Davis, Iowa’s passing game ranked worse than 100th in yards per game. In 2016, the Hawkeyes averaged 153.2 passing yards per game, finishing 118th nationally. Because of a prolific running attack, Iowa still managed an 8-5 record.
Major attrition also stunted any development. From the 2013 through 2015 recruiting classes, eight of the 10 scholarship receivers left Iowa with eligibility remaining.
However, the lack of perimeter playmakers did little to alter Davis’ play calling. In fact, on third down in 2016, it was predictably stunning. Here’s a sample:
- Of the 128 third-down plays in three-receiver sets, 121 originally were pass calls. Of the final 75 third-down plays in three-receiver groupings, 74 were pass calls. The only run was a called draw on a third-and-7 for 8 yards by quarterback C.J. Beathard that led to a game-winning field goal against Michigan.
- Officially, of Iowa’s 128 third-down plays in three-receiver formations, 36 were considered runs. That’s because 29 were either scrambles or sacks.
- When Iowa lined up with two tight ends, two backs and one receiver, it ran on 35 of 36 plays. The only pass came on the season’s final third-down attempt in the Outback Bowl by Stanley, the backup quarterback in that game.
- If the Hawkeyes had either two tight ends or a fullback on the field on third down, they ran on 45 of 47 plays.
So in 2016, spanning the last eight games on third down, if Iowa lined up with three receivers, it passed all but one time. If it lined up in anything other than three wide receivers, it ran all but twice. With significant injuries and attrition at wide receiver and tight end, coupled with the predictability, Iowa ranked 117th nationally in third-down percentage in 2016.
“I think you just kind of take every situation as it is,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Every game’s a little bit different how they play you. So what do they present on third down? What is the best way to attack it?
“I think it’s probably fair to say Greg and Brian have some different thoughts. To me that’s the prerogative of whoever’s going to be the play caller. They can steer the thing a little different.”
In Davis’ final game — a 30-3 loss to Florida in the Outback Bowl — the passing game limped to 55 yards while the running attacked grounded out 171. Over the last three seasons, Iowa is 28-1 when rushing for more than 100 yards.
Iowa’s third-down results in 2017 were an improvement but far from great. With a new quarterback and a schedule that included 10 bowl teams, the Hawkeyes inched to 105th overall in third-down percentage.
|2016: 3rd and 1-3 (Greg Davis)||49||40-57||1-9-0-25|
|2017: 3rd and 1-3 (Brian Ferentz)||42||21-44||14-21-0-110|
The way the offensive coordinators called plays was a major difference. When it was third-and-3 or less in 2016, Davis’s offense passed only nine times. Eight of the attempts came from a three-receiver set. A fullback or two tight ends were on the field for 34 of the 40 running attempts. Of the other six running plays, five originally were called passes.
Under Brian Ferentz, Iowa ran 21 times and passed 21 in third-and-3 or less. Only six of the 42 plays were from a three-receiver formation and all were passes. The other 15 passes contained a fullback and/or two tight ends, which was 13 more than Davis called on third down the entire 2016 season.
The players noticed the changes almost immediately.
“I realized trends in practice,” said former Iowa center James Daniels, the Chicago Bears’ second-round pick this year. “In practice we’ll have a move-the-ball period or like a third-and-short. I realized, ‘Oh, wow, we’re in 11 personnel [three receivers] still instead of 22 personnel [two tight ends, two backs].’ Analytics in football has become really big. All these people, they chart all that stuff. So if they know we’re 90 percent run the ball on third-and-2, why not pass the ball and throw them a curve?”
“There’s a lot more stuff that goes into making those decisions than just down and distance,” Stanley said. “I think Brian has a good knowledge of that and what he wants to do and how he wants to present the offense.”
|2016: 3rd and 4-6||41||15-(-6)||13-26-0-84|
|2017: 3rd and 4-6||70||11-36||11-34-0-178|
There was a similar pattern when Iowa faced third down and between 4 and 6 yards. In 2016, Davis called eight runs and 33 passes — seven of which turned into either scrambles (1) or sacks (6). Only one pass attempt was not from a three-receiver set.
In 2017, the majority of passes were in a three-receiver formation (24) but there were 10 that included either two or three tight ends. The 11 rushing attempts were spread over four different groupings.
“You try to be as unpredictable and exciting as you can be to some extent, but at the end of the day, sometimes the most obvious call is the best call,” Brian Ferentz said.