It's January 14th, 2015 and I'm sitting at Woody's Bar and Grill in Cozumel, Mexico. To my right a Mexican guitarist is doing his best Johnny Cash impression while singing a surprisingly entertaining version of Folsom Prison Blues. On the street in front of me a man feeds a flock of pigeons rice in what I can only assume is a poor attempt to get them to explode. It's sunny, 75 degrees and I'm sipping on a Sol. I had to be here. I had to be here because I knew Woody's had free and more importantly reliable wi-fi. Why did I need wi-fi? What was so important that I needed to interrupt my beautiful Caribbean vacation to bother myself with the problems of the world back home? Well, I needed to hear Kirk Ferentz speak, of course.
I've made a huge mistake.
Some context may be appropriate. One week earlier the Iowa Athletic Department did something that I had never seen before and by all accounts was unprecedented: they released a depth chart. How strange. A depth chart, on January 8th, 2015? Not a spring depth chart. Just...a depth chart dated January 8th, 2015.
If it was supposed to quiet the storm it didn't have the calming effect the coaching staff or athletic department intended. Only six days earlier the Hawkeyes were dismantled/woodshedded/housed/"other NSFW word" by Tennessee in the TaxSlayer Bowl and fans were clamoring for firings or resignations or something. Even the diehard fans, the "old guard" who "REMEMBERED WHEN IOWA WAS LOSING ALL THE TIME AND HAD TERRIBLE FACILITIES AND THAT'S WHY WE SHOULD GIVE UNQUESTIONING LOYALTY TO KIRK FERENTZ" (y'know, 35+ years ago prior to Hayden Fry arriving) wavered in their support. Ferentz? Davis? Parker? Someone had to go.
The only revelation the depth chart provided was that C.J. Beathard would be Iowa's frontrunner at quarterback in 2015. In my eyes it was "too little too late." The Iowa Hawkeyes under Kirk Ferentz were thoroughly exposed in Jacksonville on January 2nd, 2015 and the system was broken. The problems were so much bigger than quarterback. In the bowl, the talent gap was evident and the coaching was archaic. The problems with the program had been discussed on a micro level prior to the game but never had they been shown on such a grandiose scale as they were against a far superior Tennessee team. A 6-6 Tennessee Volunteers team that fielded a bunch of sophomores and freshmen. A 6-6 team I, along with plenty of other people, thought Iowa would beat. What fools we were. What a fool I am.
As the January 14th press conference approached the wheels on the rumor mill began to spin in an out of control fashion. Was Beathard transferring? Was Rudock? Would Greg Davis be fired? What about Phil Parker? Wait, was Ferentz actually resigning? There's no way, right? I mean, how did we even get to the point where we're actually talking about Kirk Ferentz resigning? Well...let's talk about that.
Part I: We Should've Known
Many saw the problems from the start. I was in the stands for the Northern Iowa game when Iowa had to escape with a 31-23 win over an FCS team in the fourth quarter. Same for Ball State, when the Hawkeyes entered the fourth quarter down 13-3 and needed two touchdowns with less than three minutes left on the clock to notch a 17-13 victory over a bad MAC team. Iowa State? Well, never mind Iowa State. Iowa is Iowa State's "Super Bowl." It's the one game a year they get up for. Never mind that Iowa State was annihilated by North Dakota State the first game of the year. Never mind that Iowa is supposedly a more talented team with better coaching.
No. Never mind that Iowa lost to one of the worst Iowa State teams in recent history on a last second field goal. Never mind.
And winning at Pittsburgh made it easy to forget. The Panthers were 3-0 and running back James Conner was prematurely labeled as a Heisman candidate. Iowa struggled throughout the first half of the game but when C.J. Beathard entered in the third quarter there was a jolt of energy. Down 17-7 at half, the Hawkeyes scored 10 points in the third and got the ball back early in the fourth quarter. Following a 8 minute drive they took a 24-20 lead and the rest was history. And by history I mean that Iowa fans had to suffer through seven more minutes of praying that Pitt didn't score.
In the end it wasn't all bad. Iowa finished their non-conference schedule at 3-1 and traded a Pittsburgh win for an Iowa State loss. But it's unsettling how some, including myself, accepted such an atrocious loss. Iowa should've went undefeated in the non-conference. Naturally, history tells us that 3-1 is what to expect under Kirk Ferentz. After all, he's only gone undefeated in the non-conference three times.
The problems with the team that would haunt them in November were all there, too.
- First, Iowa couldn't run the ball. Iowa's leading rusher, Mark Weisman, rushed for only 184 yards on 54 carries. That's an atrocious 3.4 YPC. Against Northern Iowa Weisman was actually outgained by Tevaun Smith, a wide-receiver, who notched 35 yards on an END AROUND.
- Second, Iowa couldn't stretch the field. Against UNI, Ball State and Iowa State Jake Rudock was averaging 6.1 YPA. His tendency to check down and get the ball to running back Damon Bullock, Iowa's #2 in receptions at the time, was a forecast of the mediocre things to come.
- Third, and most importantly, Iowa had absolutely no answer for an opponent's speed on the second level. David Johnson, UNI's star running back, was held to a measly 34 yards on 13 carries. The problem was that he had 203 yards on 5 (FIVE) receptions and was averaging 40 YPC. How? Easy, send him up the field, blow past Iowa's linebackers and find the soft spot in the zone coverage. Against Iowa State it was DeVondrick Nealy, who ran a wheel route against sophomore linebacker Reggie Spearman and torched the young man for a 27 yard touchdown. Against Pitt it was Tyler Boyd, who had 153 yards on 10 receptions because for some reason why would you want a cornerback covering a former U.S. Army All-American when he cuts to the middle of the field? Nah, that's what inexperienced linebackers are for.
The third problem would become the worst.
Part II: The Paper Tiger
With Purdue and Indiana next on the schedule it looked like Iowa would have plenty of time to beef-up before flying to College Park. C.J. Beathard, in his first start, only went 17-37 but if memory serves me, there were seven dropped balls including one for a touchdown pass. The Hawkeyes actually spotted Purdue a 10 point lead that game but c'mon it's Purdue we're talking about here. Nothing to see. 4-1, moving on.
Against Indiana we saw the return of a "healthy" Jake Rudock in arguably one of the strangest games I've ever watched. It also included a complete exposure of the aforementioned third problem. Tevin Coleman ran for 219 yards and three touchdowns on only 15 carries. That's 14.6 YPC. So how did he do it? Easy. Stretch the ball to the outside, expect Iowa's linebackers to over-pursue and their safeties to take bad angles. That happened. A lot.
And Randy Edsall watched the Indiana tape. He saw that Iowa had no answer for speed on the outside edge. Their linebackers are undisciplined, their safeties are slow and if they can reach the second level its curtains for the Hawkeyes. So Maryland stretched the field. On the ground it was with C.J. Brown, Brandon Ross or Wes Brown running the zone read. But those guys weren't really the problem.
Nah. They weren't the problem. No one ever expected them to be the problem. Everyone expected Stefon Diggs to be the problem. A problem to the tune of 9 receptions for 130 yards and a touchdown. And in fairness to Iowa, when Diggs scored on that wide-receiver screen they just so happened to call a cornerback blitz so it's not like there was anyone covering the guy aside from poor Reggie Spearman who came from the outside linebacker position on zone coverage. But where were the safeties? No worries, they were out of position 7 yards past the line of scrimmage running into blockers.
That game ended so poorly for Iowa it's easy to forget that they actually led 14-0 at one point. What happened? Nothing. Following their 14-0 lead Iowa got the ball back four more times before half (I'm excluding when they got the ball back with only 17 seconds before halftime). On two of those drives they went 3-and-out, another ended in a fumble and they punted on their second to last drive. It would take Iowa four more possessions before they finally scored again in the third quarter. By then, Maryland had taken a 24-21 lead. Offense? What offense?
Oh, Jake Rudock pick-six? Why not?
Fortunately the Hawkeyes came out next week and exercised the demons against a hapless Northwestern team. This game was such an epic beating that I don't even know if we learned anything from it. Was Iowa that good? (No). Was Northwestern that bad? (Yes). The Wildcats were held to a horrendous 180 yards and gave up 38 points to Iowa in the first half. In case you're wondering the final score was 48-7, which means that Ferentz obviously took his foot off the gas and coasted to a win. Because why run up the score on a team that was haunted you for years, right?
Speaking of exercising the demons. Oh, hello Minnesota.
How are you?
Oh well that's not very nice.
HEY STOP THAT.
HEY GET OUT OF MY CAR.
WAIT WHY IS MY WIFE WITH YOU?
IS THAT MY ZEPPELIN VINYL COLLECTION?
AND MY VENTURE BROS. BLU-RAYS?
WHY? WHY TAKE THE COPIES OF BIOSHOCK: INFINITE?
WHY ARE YOU TAKING ALL MY THINGS?
WHAT IS GOING ON?
COME BACK HERE.
Usually you have to pay for the type of stuff that Minnesota did to Iowa on TV. The line that sticks out to me the most in the AP's recap is this:
"This won't go down as one of coach Kirk Ferentz's best teams..."
Brother, you ain't lying.
Following the Illinois game a trend was becoming evident. Aside from Iowa State, Iowa could beat every team they were better than. Unfortunately, they also lost to all the better teams, usually in horrific or hilarious fashion. That's how they ended up 7-3 (4-2) heading into the final weeks of the season.
So what did that mean for Wisconsin and Nebraska?
Part III: Waterloo
My take: The Wisconsin game was the barometer for where Iowa is as a program. No matter what they did, no matter how well they played, they just weren't good enough. Well, moreso: they didn't have Melvin Gordon. It's tough to watch when your team goes out and plays well but they just don't have the horses to pull out the win.
Look, Jake Rudock played well. He went 20-30 for 311 yards and 2 touchdowns. But that stat line seems to be the epitome of Jake Rudock. Iowa came out firing in the second half because they had no other choice. Weisman and Canzeri couldn't get the ground game going so it was up to Rudock to save the day. Apparently, when Rudock is in "I have to make plays " mode is the only time Rudock actually makes plays.
And the loss isn't on him. It's on the inability to stop Melvin Gordon, who combined for 264 yards and 3 TDs and couldn't be stopped on Wisconsin's final possession. Following the game Kirk Ferentz said:
"They made a couple plays that we couldn't execute."
Execution was even a bigger issue on Black Friday. Iowa was beating Nebraska so badly that Bo Pelini had been fired before the game was even over. Yet, I sat at a table at the Vine in Iowa City with my father-in-law, who is a diehard Husker and I told him "Nebraska is going to win this game." It was 24-14 at the time but I really knew the score. After going up 24-7 early in the third the Hawkeyes started to turtle. You could actually see the Iowa football team saying to themselves "Aw shucks I really hope we don't lose this one."
SPOILER ALERT: YOU DID.
Be it lack of aggressiveness, the exposure of Iowa's predictable and lackluster offense or the idiotic decision to continue punting to Pierson-El, the Hawkeyes choked away the game and eventually lost it in OT.
I've always told myself don't say "It can't get any worse" because IT CAN ALWAYS GET WORSE.
It got worse.
Other than "Well that's just unfortunate" there isn't a whole lot to say about the TaxSlayer Bowl. Iowa was exposed. They looked outdated, unathletic, undisciplined and Tennessee had their way with the Hawkeyes in every manner possible. Notably, the Volunteers beat Iowa with the same general strategy that most teams did in 2014: get to the outside. Josh Dobbs and Jalen Hurd ran the zone read most of the game and Iowa was either too slow or too weak to stop it. The run opened up the pass and the Hawkeyes were done. Over.
The Iowa Hawkeyes, who were once considered a dark horse to win the West due to their soft schedule lost three of their remaining four games and limped to 7-5 (4-4). They beat the teams they were supposed to and lost to the teams they were supposed to in painful fashion. They showed up to a bowl game that the fans didn't care about and were thrashed by Tennessee 45-28 (and no, the score wasn't really that close). That was 2014 in a nutshell, really.
Where were we? Ah yes, Cozumel. Woody's. Sol. Beautiful weather. Kirk Ferentz. So here I am sitting in Cozumel waiting for this press conference to start. Resignation? Firings? Transfers? How delicious. I'll just open up Twitter and follow along.
Uh, OK. Kirk Ferentz started by talking about the past. Sounds like the type of things you would reflect upon before deciding to step down. Then again I feel like he always talks about the past. Sort of like he lives in the past...well...nevermind. Let's move on.
OK now he's talking about what they want to do as a program so it's clear he's not stepping down which is fine but someone definitely has to be getting fired or resign or something has to change, right?
No coaching changes.— marcmorehouse (@marcmorehouse) January 14, 2015
KF just said going to look at the Packers offense.— marcmorehouse (@marcmorehouse) January 14, 2015
Why depth chart? "I am not tone deaf. Coming out of last two games, disappointing for all of us, fans and coaches and players— Jon Miller (@HawkeyeNation) January 14, 2015
wait what you aren't tone deaf Kirk you still think pleats are fashionable
Coach Davis assessment: "I think we have great people in building, excellent teacher and coach, learning process for him, just like me"— Jon Miller (@HawkeyeNation) January 14, 2015
wait a learning process Greg Davis is 63 years old and has been coaching since 1973
More talking about doing a better job blah blah blah OK SO WAIT STOP STOP STOP KIRK. So why even call this presser? No one is getting fired, resigning and no one of importance is leaving the team. Why? Why am I giving up valuable vacation time for this? Why?
Why call presser? "My sense was we needed to talk. Simple as that"....hmmm. Didn't sound convincing ;)— Jon Miller (@HawkeyeNation) January 14, 2015
Ah, well I always do enjoy our talks, Kirk.
/walks to end of pier, jumps into Caribbean Sea
You wanted more?
Perhaps you were expecting a 2015 outlook?
Same coach, same coordinators, same scheme. Interchange some parts and you're back at square one: a 7-5 Iowa football team.
So it goes.
ED NOTE: If for some strange reason you'd want to read the transcript of the January 14th press conference, which is full of gems like "I'm coaching the way I did in 1999" you can click here.