IOWA CITY, Iowa — On a mild night against an old rival, Brian Ferentz turned the Iowa offense upside down, and the Minnesota coaching staff briefly couldn’t handle it.
On the first play from scrimmage at its 20, Iowa lined up with three tight ends. The Hawkeyes had passed from that grouping just once on first down all season, and the Gophers played for a run. Instead, quarterback Nate Stanley bootlegged to his left and hit tight end T.J. Hockenson for a 22-yard pass.
On the second play, the Hawkeyes passed from another run-based formation for 25 yards and another first down. The Gophers called timeout. Three plays later, running back Akrum Wadley burst 12 yards on a draw out of a pass-first three-receiver formation for a touchdown.
To begin the second half, Iowa also scored on a five-play drive. Wadley ran for 11 yards from a two-tight end, two-back formation. On the next down, Iowa kept the same grouping. Stanley play-faked and hit tight end Noah Fant on a long crossing route for a 45-yard score.
Two series showed how tweaks in play calling can turn Iowa’s basic pro-style offense into an unpredictable force. The Hawkeyes gained 155 yards on those drives. But the rest of the game was far less inventive. Iowa’s offense picked up 160 yards on its remaining possessions.
That game — a 17-10 win — comprised everything in Iowa’s season. There were flashes of play-calling excellence offset by a predictable quagmire.
“I think there were subtle changes; I don’t think they were drastic changes,” said BTN college football analyst Gerry DiNardo, who previously coached at LSU, Vanderbilt and Indiana. “I actually think that he will make more changes this year than last year.”
Best of times, worst of times
None of Iowa’s offensive seasons under any coordinator touched both ends of the sizzle-fizzle index as often as 2017. The Hawkeyes put up 55 points on Ohio State, 56 on Nebraska and 44 on Iowa State. The offense failed to score at Wisconsin and was held to 1 touchdown at both Michigan State and Northwestern. Iowa rushed for 323 yards at Nebraska and only 19 at Michigan State. It totaled 66 yards at Wisconsin — the program’s lowest number since 1944 — and 487 against Ohio State.
“I’m watching Star Wars with my son the other day, and I would use this analogy,” Ferentz said. “OK, when you’re in the Wisconsin game, it’s like you’re the pilot of that little sad rebel ship at the opening of Star Wars. Darth Vader’s Star Destroyer is closing on that ship, right? That’s what the Wisconsin game feels like. But if it’s the Ohio State game or the Nebraska game, then you’re Luke Skywalker making the trench run in the Death Star. Everything is going to go right, don’t worry about it. Use the Force, Luke, you’ll be all right; call whatever you want.”
The game plan against Ohio State was different from Iowa’s previous eight games in 2017. Ferentz elected to pass on first down, which had the Buckeyes off balance. In the first three quarters, Iowa passed on 16 of 29 first-down plays. The running game then fed off the passing attack. In almost every instance, Iowa either opted to pass after a first-down run or run after a first-down pass. In the end, Stanley threw for 5 touchdowns and 244 yards. The Hawkeyes rushed for 243 yards in a shocking 55-24 win.
“One thing that I got onto during the season specifically was going into the Ohio State game, they were 60 percent run on first-and-10,” DiNardo said. “Then against Ohio State, they flipped that on first down.”
Then there were the other games. At Wisconsin, the running game averaged 4.5 yards per carry on first down but became impatient. Of Iowa’s 18 second-down opportunities last year, Stanley completed 3 of 11 passes for 19 yards. The Hawkeyes generated 20 yards on 7 rushes, which was decent in retrospect. Iowa failed to convert on every third down against the Badgers.
At Michigan State, Iowa had minus-7 yards on first down through halftime and 32 for the game in a 17-10 loss.
“I learned that I’m not really as good at it as I’d like to be,” Ferentz said. “And I think if you do anything, that should be the way you’re looking at it. But I tried to be realistic going into it. I’ve been around long enough now to understand that anything you do, you’re probably going to improve over time. But you have to be willing to get out of your comfort zone a little bit and push forward.”
The 2018 season presents Ferentz with potential and challenges. Stanley returns as a junior after throwing for 26 touchdowns and only 6 interceptions as a first-time starter. Fant, a likely preseason All-America tight end, caught 11 touchdowns. Three starters return up front, as does the Hawkeyes’ leading pass receiver, Nick Easley, and other skill players.
Iowa needs to replace back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher Wadley, four-year starting guard Sean Welsh and second-round draft pick James Daniels at center. Offensive growth is likely, but Iowa’s depth must catch up quickly. There will be injuries, and Iowa losing a pair of three-year starting tackles early last season negatively impacted the offense all year.
The Hawkeyes will remain a physical, pro-style offense guided by ground acquisition. But the variables such as game flow will dictate Ferentz’s play calling. If points are at a premium, expect a wide-open attack. If field position or time of possession is vital, Ferentz will call a game more conservatively. In the end, winning is more important than a statistical dogma.
“Our job is to play complementary football,” Ferentz said. “Each game is a little bit different. But certainly I think if you had to pick one thing, scoring offense is pretty important, just like I think the inverse of that, scoring defense is much more important than the yards you’re giving up.”
So, how will Iowa’s offense evolve? Last year, Iowa had between 97 to 125 rushing attempts from each of four personnel groupings. That kind of balance likely will continue. Ferentz shook up the team’s third-down predictability in 2017. With an abundance of talent and depth at tight end, expect the Hawkeyes to use a two-tight end grouping as their primary formation in 2018.
“I think his evolution will be play calling,” DiNardo said of Ferentz. “It’s not going to be formations because formations are developed on a day like today [in May]. You recruit to a scheme, and they’re not going to start recruiting to any different schemes. It is what it is. It’s execution based. It’s tight end-fullback driven, and it’s a run-based offense. That’s not going to change.”
Iowa’s passing game attacked down the field and between the hash marks with more inside routes than in recent years. Stanley had some overthrows, but it’s a clear shift in passing philosophy. According to Thad Nelson, a math and engineering teacher at Treynor (Iowa) High School, 31.5 percent of Iowa’s passes last year were beyond 10 yards, up from 28.2 percent in 2016. With the 6-foot-5, 241-pound Fant posing a mismatch to every defender — coupled with a more experienced and potential explosive wide receiver corps — not only could that percentage increase, but so could the yards.
“I feel like our coaches knew that we had guys that could stretch the field vertically not only at tight end but also at receiver,” Fant said. “I feel like we had a lot more downfield passing concepts last season. I feel like if they know that if we have the guys, they are going to call it. I definitely feel it’s a good thing for our offense to have that option to go deep when we need it.”
Stanley 2017 passing chart with targets and distances. Nearly 2500 yds and 26-6 TD/INT. I think everyone would take that at the start. pic.twitter.com/9a0O0Ykete
— Thad Nelson (@tnels20) December 28, 2017
Last spring was about installing a new system. With only two scholarship wide receivers on the practice field, a quarterback competition and Wadley coming off knee surgery, there was no chance for offensive cohesion. This spring, the system, the quarterback and the pass catchers were in place.
“I think the meetings were a lot more efficient,” coach Kirk Ferentz said. “We were spending a lot more time looking at last year’s tape, first of all, because it was the offense that we are going to run. Then, secondly, we had time to do that as opposed to what are we going to call this? How are we going to do that?”
For DiNardo, Stanley is the key to Iowa’s offensive development under Brian Ferentz.
“If Stanley continues to develop and if they can shape coverage, their first-and-10 run-pass ratio will change,” DiNardo said.
Iowa incorporates run-pass options but does it pre-snap, unlike other college programs in which the quarterback decides once the ball is in his hands. That won’t change as long as Brian Ferentz runs the offense because the quarterback lines up primarily behind center. Iowa uses a no-huddle attack when necessary but won’t commit to it as a strategy.
“You go into some games and maybe you want to throw the ball 70 percent of the time on first down and run it 30 percent,” Brian Ferentz said. “Or maybe you want to run it 40 percent or 60 percent. You just want to make sure that the predictability and the percentages aren’t telling people things. What you have to balance that with is sometimes how the feel of the game is going. Sometimes you get totally off the rails based on what you thought going in because something is going really well.
“I think the biggest thing for me is learning how to do a better job of maximizing the role I’m in now because it was new to me a year ago.”
Brian Ferentz’s best play calls
- With the score tied against Boston College late in the Pinstripe Bowl, Iowa took over at the BC 45-yard line following a fumble. Iowa lined up in a three-receiver set with quarterback Nate Stanley in the shotgun. Tight end T.J. Hockenson motioned before the snap, which BC’s weakside linebacker followed. Stanley handed off to running back Akrum Wadley on a 27-yard draw where the linebacker was set up. Iowa scored the game-winning touchdown two plays later.
- Late in the second quarter against Ohio State, Iowa lined up with two tight ends on the field but brought the appearance of three wide receivers with tight end Noah Fant split wide. With 1-on-1 coverage, Fant ran a go route past the Buckeyes cornerback for a 25-yard touchdown strike.
- In overtime on second-and-goal at the Iowa State 5, the Hawkeyes lined up in a two-tight end, two-back formation. In five of the six previous plays from that grouping, Iowa ran the football, and the only pass was a drop. Ihmir Smith-Marsette was the only receiver in the game, and he motioned pre-snap from wide to the tight end’s right hip. At the snap, Smith-Marsette ran to the flat, where he hauled in a 5-yard touchdown pass to win the game.
Brian Ferentz’s roughest calls
- Midway though the second quarter against Penn State, Iowa faced second-and-8 from its 3-yard line. Brian Ferentz called a naked pitch to Wadley that failed to fool Penn State’s defense. Wadley was tackled in the end zone for a safety.
- Iowa trailed Wisconsin 10-7 halfway through the second quarter when the Hawkeyes forced and recovered a fumble at midfield. The Badgers already built a time-of-possession edge at 15 minutes, 6 seconds to 7:38. After a 3-yard run on first down, Ferentz called a pair of passes, both of which fell incomplete. Not only did the Hawkeyes ruin great field position, the offense unnecessarily pushed its defense to the brink way too early in a difficult game.
- The Hawkeyes trailed Michigan State 17-7 late in the third quarter but mounted a decent drive into Spartans territory. On first-and-10 at the Michigan State 38, freshman Brandon Smith caught a screen pass for 3 yards then fumbled. While Smith’s fumble is all his own, the Hawkeyes have multiple receivers better suited for that type of route than the bigger, more physical Smith.