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Harty: Time to move beyond ho-hum seasons

[ 23 ] January 1, 2012 |

Assuming he stays put, which seems likely at this point, Kirk Ferentz will enter his 14th season as the Iowa football coach faced with his second mini-rebuilding project.

By mini, that means trying to take a program that’s hovered around .500 for at least two consecutive seasons and make it a conference contender again.

Iowa, which lost Friday to Oklahoma 31-14 in the Insight Bowl, was about as .500 as you get this season, finishing 7-6 overall and 4-4 in the Big Ten.

Combine that with last season’s records of 8-5 overall and 4-4 in the conference and you have a program that is certainly far from imploding, but one that is sort of spinning its wheels or stuck in neutral, whatever you want to call it.

Take away the 2008 and 2009 seasons when Iowa combined to finish 20-6 overall and a 11-5 in the Big Ten and the Hawkeyes are just 34-29 overall and 19-21 in the Big Ten since Warren Holloway made arguably the greatest touchdown catch in program history to defeat Louisiana State in the Capital One Bowl, capping a 10-2 season in 2004.

That’s not to suggest that Iowa used up most of its good fortune for the next decade with Holloway’s miraculous catch.

His catch just happened to come at the end of a three-year run of unprecedented success in which Iowa won two Big Ten titles, had three consecutive double-digit win seasons and finished 31-7 overall.

The Hawkeyes have mostly been average since then, or a little above, with exception to the run in 2008 and 2009.

Of, course, Ferentz could counter by pointing out that his departing seniors leave the program after having won 35 games, three of four bowl games, including a BCS bowl, and a school-record three consecutive games against Michigan.

But Ferentz also would agree with what Iowa athletics director Gary Barta told me recently, which was that finishing 7-5 in the regular season is not good enough. Barta didn’t say it in those exact words, but that’s what he meant.

Some Iowa fans would tell you that finishing 7-5 is acceptable as long as a few 11-2 or 10-3 campaigns are sprinkled in every three or four seasons.

That pretty much sums up Iowa football at its highest point under Ferentz, and under former coach Hayden Fry for that matter.

As for next season’s team, it’s hard to picture the 2012 Hawkeyes competing for a Big Ten title based on the information we have now about them. But that’s often the circumstance when the Hawkeyes thrive under Ferentz, so don’t rule it out.

It’s also hard to say that Iowa gained any momentum heading into the off-season with the loss to Oklahoma. But at least the Hawkeyes didn’t let the game get ugly after trailing 21-0 after three quarters.

“I thought our guys really competed,” Ferentz said after the loss. “That all starts with your effort and the attitude that you take into a game.”

“And I think we have enough players right now where we will build on that and we will start thinking about (next season) here in a day or two.”

The 2012 schedule will be similar in strength to the 2011 schedule, with Iowa once again not playing Ohio State or Wisconsin. Facing Michigan and Michigan State on the road will be daunting task, but Iowa also gets to face Iowa State and Nebraska at Kinnick Stadium.

The 2012 Hawkeyes on paper look pretty similar to the 2011 Hawkeyes, especially if suspended running back Marcus Coker, who rushed for 1,384 yards on 281 carries this past season, returns for his junior season.

Coker would be among eight starters returning on offense, along with five on defense and kicker Mike Meyer. So would All-Big Ten left tackle Riley Reiff if he chooses to return for his senior season. But my hunch is that Reiff will do the same thing that fellow left tackle and former Hawkeye Brian Bulaga did after the 2009 season, which is enter the NFL draft a year early.

You can’t argue with Bulaga’s decision, considering he was selected in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft by the Green Bay Packers and now is a fixture at right tackle and the owner of a Super Bowl ring, and maybe soon another one.

Iowa was good enough to be one of just two teams to defeat Sugar Bowl-bound Michigan this season, but bad enough to lose to a 3-9 Minnesota squad for the second year in a row.

James Vandenberg returns for his senior season at quarterback with mixed results.

He was good enough to pass for 3,022 yards, which is the fourth highest single-season mark in school history, and 25 touchdowns. But he wasn’t very good on the road, where Iowa finished 1-4, its only victory coming at Purdue.

Vandenberg also combined to complete just 39-of-79 passes in the last two games against Nebraska and Oklahoma. That’s 40 incomplete passes in two games, which is too many.

And because he isn’t a dual-threat quarterback, Vandenberg has to compensate by being accurate and astutely aware of things in the pocket.

Competition could make Vandenberg better next season, or it could lead to his demise.

Florida native Jake Rudock will be in the mix as a redshirt freshman after sitting out this season. The 6-foot-3 Rudock was the real deal at perennial power St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and word is that he is real deal here, too.

Rudock isn’t a dual-threat quarterback, but he is supposedly accurate and aware of how to play the position.

A junior-college transfer also will be in the competition next season with 6-2 Cody Sokol having picked Iowa on Saturday. Sokol passed for more than 3,000 yards this past season at Scottsdale Community College in his hometown of Scottsdale, Ariz.

Sokol was born in Des Moines, and he picked Iowa over Arizona, Cincinnati and Florida International.

Career backup John Wienke also will be a senior next season.”

Senior-to-be receiver Keenan Davis will be one of the most important players on the team next season because he is the mostly likely to replace Marvin McNutt as the team’s go-to receiver.

The 6-3 Davis benefited from the attention paid to containing McNutt, who finished with a school-record 1,315 receiving yards this past season, by catching 50 passes himself.

Next season, though, the best defensive backs will be shadowing Davis just like they did McNutt the past two seasons.

One or two other receivers will have to step up, with sophomore-to-be Kevonte Martin-Manly, who had 30 receptions this past season, a likely candidate, along with junior-to-be tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz.

Iowa fans had been waiting for the 6-7, 260-pound Fiedorowicz to live up his vast potential, and he finally started to down the stretch, making 12 of his 16 catches in the final four games. His three touchdown catches also came in the last four games, including one in the Insight Bowl.

Things are more uncertain on defense because of changes that will occur between now and the start of next season.

Ferentz has to find a replacement for the only defensive coordinator he’s had at Iowa with 70-year old Norm Parker retiring after the Insight Bowl. There is also an opening at defensive line with Rick Kaczenski having bolted to take the same job at new Legends Division rival Nebraska.

Gee, wonder how that move went over with Ferentz?

Ferentz is taking his time to hire new coaches because picking the wrong person, or persons, could prove costly.

Things could be a lot worse at Iowa under Ferentz. But now after two ho-hum seasons, it’s time to be good again, sooner rather than later.

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football

About Pat Harty: Columnist Pat Harty has been covering the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Press-Citizen since 1991. Originally from Des Moines, he currently writes columns and covers Hawkeye men's basketball for Hawk Central. View author profile.

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