Miller: A Midseason Look at Iowa Football

Publisher
Posted Oct 8, 2007


This season has been a trying one in Iowa Hawkeye circles, for coaches, fans and players alike. HN Founder Jon Miller weighs in at the midway point of the 2007 season, a year that is now more about the future of the program than it is about this one season...

It’s been a long time since the Iowa fanbase has been as sideways as it seems to be regarding the Iowa football program.

Then again, it’s been a long time since they have had reason to be.

I don’t think for one second that message boards and call in radio programs represent the majority opinion of a fanbase. Radio research shows me that there are 10,000 to 15,000+ listeners to afternoon sports talk programming on 1460 KXNO in Des Moines, but there might be 200 different individuals that call into such programs on an annual basis.

This website has upwards of 20,000 individuals that have the ability to post, but my guess is that a few hundred are the most frequent posters.

None of that is to say that those that do call, or do post, don’t have valid opinions. It’s just that I don’t base the mood of an entire fan base on them.

That said, the conversations I have been having with friends of mine that I know to be level headed folks have been eye opening for me. Their comments, while respectful, even keeled and thought out, have not been so rosy.

Nor has the 2007 Iowa football season.

This is going to be a lot of things about a lot of things (2,590 words to be exact), so settle in, if you choose to continue reading.

WHAT’S WRONG WITH IOWA FOOTBALL?

There are a lot of opinions on that, and some interesting discussions, but unfortunately you have to wade through a lot of posts on the message boards to find them. What we have is name calling and insults when someone dares to provide a different x’s and o’s opinion than what someone else has. That is disappointing, and that’s the least offensive word I could come up with right now.

But back to football.

When I was thinking about this topic as I wrote this piece, I remembered back to something I wrote on November 6th of last year, just after Iowa lost at home to Northwestern. Here is the LINK to that column.

Many of the same concerns are questions that a lot of people are still bringing up. I still have some issues with Iowa’s offensive philosophy at times. I still wonder about some of Iowa’s defensive philosophies. But I also need to admit that I am not a football coach, nor have I been at any level. So I am certainly no college football expert.

I have watched a lot of Iowa football through the years, every game of the Ferentz era at least once if not at least three times.

I have seen what has worked and have expressed thoughts on why it has worked, and I see what is not working and I have my thoughts as to why things are not working.

Last year, I felt Iowa’s offensive philosophy did not match up well with its offensive personnel. That is pretty much what the above link will tell you. This year, I would say the same thing, but I will add the caveat that the injuries/suspensions to Iowa’s top pass catching options have significant contributed to the ineffectiveness of this year’s offense.

Now, that is NOT to say that if those things had not happened, Iowa would be a 5-1 football team. I am not saying that. That is what I would call an excuse, an excuse for why you are 2-6 and not 5-1. Again, I am not saying that.

But I am saying that such things have contributed to Iowa’s lack of consistent production this year. I say that with strong conviction.

I think you can scheme around some problems. With a young and inexperienced offensive line, you can run more spread formations, that unclog the box, that give your playmakers a chance to make plays. That doesn’t mean you have become a passing football team, either. You can achieve a balanced offense with spread formations. Please note that I am NOT saying Iowa needs to run a SPREAD OFFENSE. What I am talking about are formations that spread out a defense. That can be as simple as a three by one formation, with three receivers, a tight end and one running back. That forces defenses to either move outside by a few yards, or take their chances with getting beat through the air if you stay inside the tackle box. You can even be a running team out of spread formations.

That would help out the offensive line, because it would take some degree of heat off of them. That would give a young quarterback more time to see the field. That would give young receivers more space to run in.

This year, at present, Iowa doesn’t have four receivers healthy enough to consistently run four wide receiver formations. Having see Trey Stross run on Saturday, I don’t believe for a second that he is 100 percent healthy. But he is out there doing what he can do, and he did a solid job, and I respect that. But that is not the same kind of speed I saw less than three years ago in San Antonio during the US Army Bowl practices. Not even close.

I do think Iowa can run more 3 by 1. Against Indiana, they left a lot of running yards on the table in that game, because Indiana did not load the box. Not at all.

So I am not giving Ken O’Keefe a free pass here, either. I still have some concerns about Iowa’s offensive philosophy. I am not a big fan of I Formation football, unless you have a very good offensive line, which Iowa doesn’t have right now. And running into a wall, the way they did at Wisconsin, is certainly perplexing. Michigan runs some I, but they run more base, pro sets; one running back, two receivers wide on opposite sides of the line of scrimmage and two tight ends. Or one tight and a slot receiver. You can be very dangerous when you have protection and all American receivers, even in such formations.

Iowa doesn’t have such things this year, or in many years.

Again, I think Iowa’s offensive thinking is brilliant and perfect when you have Gallery, Steinbach, Nelson, Porter and Sobeiski from tackle to tackle, and you have the best tight end in school history, and two very productive receivers.

But such things are not the norm in Iowa City. Wanting to be balanced is great. That is solid football logic. How you achieve that balance has to have a lot to do with what you have to work with. I don’t know that I can say that I have found Iowa’s approach in recent years to be 100% logical.

I brought that up late last year, and Kirk Ferentz said repeatedly that such things have more to do with execution than scheme.

I will also say that being the offensive coordinator for Iowa, right now, in this year given the circumstances, is not a job that I would want. Not even close. I don’t have many answers and that is assuming that what I might think has any merit. And that is an assumption that might be full of folly, to begin with. Again, I am not a football coach, nor have I ever been a football coach.

The challenges facing this offense now are much more severe than what faced them in 2004. Some will disagree with me, some on the HN Staff even, but I still believe that the decimation Iowa has had this year in the pass catching department is more harmful to an offense than losing all of those running backs in 2004.

In 2004, Iowa made a change on the fly. They became more of a passing team. They also had an offensive line that was void of first year starters. That line included Mike Elgin and Mike Jones as sophomores, Brian Ferentz and Lee Gray as juniors and Pete McMahon as a senior. Again, none of those players was starting in his first year, or playing in his first year. That team also had Ed Hinkel, Clinton Solomon and Scott Chandler catching passes. Two of those players are among the most productive receiving targets in school history at their position. Not explosive, just productive.

This year’s line began with three players making their first career starts, and two other players in their second seasons of starting. Three sophomores, one freshman and one junior. Offensive line play was my single biggest question mark coming into this season.

On top of that, you take away Dominique Douglas, who knew how to get open, who hung onto the ball and who was a great blocker, Tony Moeaki and Andy Brodell, along with Anthony Bowman who had one year of experience in game situations, and that is significant.

That area affects creates even more challenges for a young offensive line than it would have seen. I wrote back in the summer that Iowa’s offense would face a ton of blitzes this year. That was with every single one of those players healthy and available.

Maybe its time to move Albert Young into a 1984 Ronnie Harmon role, and play him in the slot. Honestly, I just don’t know. I don’t have the answers.

I do know that statistically, Iowa’s offense has been here before over the course of the last four and a half football seasons. The 2003 team was ranked 92nd in total offense that year. The 2004 team was 101st. This year’s squad is now 106th.

As a part of this year’s problem, I think a fair question is why is the Iowa offensive line in such a predicament?

I don’t think Kirk Ferentz has all of the sudden gotten stupid or has forgotten how to teach offensive linemen. I really don’t hear much of anything on Iowa’s offensive line coach Reese Morgan. Is that good or bad? I don’t know the answer to that. And again, I’m not a football coach. I think I have mentioned that before.

Where are the junior and senior offensive linemen?

Iowa’s recruiting class of 2003, the class that would be fifth year seniors this year, consisted of two offensive linemen: Mike Jones and Clint Huntrods. Jones was unfortunately pressed into action during his true freshman year due to injuries. Huntrods was dismissed from the team last month for disciplinary reasons.

Iowa’s 2004 recruiting class included linemen Nyere Aumaitre, Seth Olsen and Rashard Dunn. Aumaitre has struggled. He is not on the two deeps, and he is in year four. Rashard Dunn is on the two deeps, but on the defensive line. Olsen is a starter.

So over two years from 2003 to 2004, Iowa signed five offensive linemen. One was forced to play as a freshman, one was kicked off the team (although he was a non-factor on the offensive line), one is on defense now (and he wasn’t going to press for time on the OL), one is nowhere to be found and one is a starter. That’s a .400 average.

That’s great in baseball, but not for offensive line production.

And the offensive ineffectiveness has had an impact on Iowa’s defense. When you are not sustaining drives, when your third down conversion percentage is lower than 30%, it means a lot of time on the field for the defense, most notably the defensive line.

By the way, Iowa was 3 of 16 on third down conversions against Penn State. The average was third and 7.6 yards. That’s an average of third and too dang long.

My second biggest concern heading into this year was Iowa’s lack of defensive line depth. Though no one has sustained any serious injury yet this year along the front line, that concern is being realized, most notably in the second half of football games over the past three weeks.

They are logging too many minutes, having to go too many plays, due to an offense that is three and out more than it’s not.

I think the defense has played well enough in the first half of most every ballgame to win every game it has been in. They have played winning defense.

Special teams has also been a letdown this year, specifically in the specialist department. Ryan Donahue might have been the player of the game against Penn State, as he had 11 punts for a 45.2 yard average. Two of those punts were 50-plus yards. So that is a good step for him in what had been a very rough season. He is also on pace to have 88 punts this year, which is way too many. Austin Signor and Daniel Murray are a combined 5 of 10 in field goals this year, and Iowa missed two extra points through their first five games.

So I don’t have the answers. I don’t know that the coaches have any answers, either, other than staying the course, the only thing that will help the team get better is by staying on the road and continue to work hard, etc.

I also want to see the next six games and watch if the coaching staff can keep the hearts and minds of their players. I don’t know that that was the case last year. There was a division from within. Kirk continues to say that this is a great group of kids, one of the best he has ever worked with. I don’t doubt him, because I am not there every day. In fact, I am not at practices at all, nor is any other media member I know of outside of Gary Dolphin one day a week.

This is, in my opinion, the biggest coaching challenge of the Ferentz era; to keep the hearts and minds of the players. I think that task could make ‘breaking the rock’ look like an hour in a sand box. And we all know how great a job this staff did in turning around the fortunes of the Iowa football program during those days. I just happen to think that the task at hand is tougher, or potentially more perilous.

Breaking the rock took more time. If the coaches can keep the kids this year, I honestly don’t think that they have to rebuild this thing. I don’t think that at all. I don’t think that the program needs to throw it all on the scrap heap and start over.

As much as this year looks like 1999 from an offensive standpoint, I don’t think the job to rebuild it is as significant. But the task of keeping the hearts and minds of the players. That is a task that is for the future of the program and it can't be ignored right now. And that’s just a general statement, in looking at how losing has affected teams in sports in my years of watching them.

None of this tastes good. This year is not what we have come to expect from Iowa football under Kirk Ferentz. I certainly understand the frustration, because I share it with you. It’s all the more confounding when you look at Iowa’s turnover margin this year, that ranks #9 in the nation after being 111th last year.

Things could even get worse before they get better.

I realize that this long-winded column isn’t going to give enough people the pound of flesh that they are seeking. There are no answers here. That’s not because I am worried about what folks over on Hawkins Drive might think of what I say or write; it’s because I don’t have the answers.

But I want to see the entire thing play out. There will be nine long months to comment on the state of Iowa football, beginning the day after Western Michigan game.


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