CHICAGO This might sound like hindsight, but Iowa fans were naïve to think that the offense would change dramatically without Ken O’Keefe calling the plays.
It’s hard to teach an old dog like Kirk Ferentz new tricks even when some of the people doing the teaching for him have changed.
There was hope and belief that Iowa would come out guns a blazing and shred Northern Illinois on Saturday with an unpredictable and wide-open passing attack.
Instead, the Hawkeyes relied on the same predictable, smash-mouth style that has been so beneficial during Kirk Ferentz’s coaching reign. And it’s a good thing they did because the Hawkeyes needed every one of Damon Bullock’s 150 rushing yards on 30 carries to prevail 18-17 at Soldier Field.
“We know he’s a good player,” Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg said of Bullock. “And he’s really good when you get him out in space. So being able to get him the ball has certainly got to be part of our game plan.”
That’s probably the case even more so now.
“Running back, I had no idea (what to expect), to be quite honest with you,” Ferentz said. “I don’t think any of us did. We’re hardly out of the woods, but it was a positive step.
“And then the passing game was less than impressive in the spring. But I thought in the last three or four weeks that we made strides. In plenty of areas I think we’ve made improvement. It may not have shown up today, but it’s going to as long as the guys keep working and keep their focus where they need to.”
It only took the first two or three series to realize that new Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis isn’t much different from O’Keefe as a play caller. An offensive coordinator is only as good as the personnel he coaches and right now the Iowa offense doesn’t have the kind of personnel to stretch the field.
Vandenberg completed 21-of-33 passes, which is a good percentage, but his numbers were deceiving. Vandenberg’s longest completion only covered 20 yards and most of those yards came after Keenan Davis made the catch.
Vandenberg threw more horizontal passes toward the sideline than vertical passes downfield. When he tried to throw downfield, Vandenberg often was sacked or the receivers were blanketed.
The inability of the Iowa receivers to create separation against a team from the Mid-American Conference that allowed nearly 40 points per game last season was perhaps the most disturbing thing about Saturday’s game.
Or perhaps it was Vandenberg being sacked six times or him looking befuddled in the pocket despite being a fifth-year senior.
“We hung in there, we kept swinging and we hung together as a group,” Vandenberg said when asked what positives he could take from Saturday’s victory. “There are weeks like that. In my five years here at Iowa, we’ve had a lot of weeks like this. It’s just something where you’ve got to keep going.
“The one positive is we had zero turnovers and that definitely helped us down the stretch.”
What helped Iowa down the stretch more than anything besides John Wienke’s fourth-quarter punt that pinned the Huskies deep in their own territory was its power running game. The names of the Iowa running backs change from year to year, and sometimes from game to game, but the strategy doesn’t.
“It didn’t seem like a wide-open offense,” said Northern Illinois head coach Dave Doeren, who knows the Iowa system quite well after serving as an assistant coach at Wisconsin from 2007 to 2010. “There was a little bit more tempo probably than what you normally see with Iowa’s offense. They no-huddled us a couple times, but it was still zone right, zone left, run the ball to your guys.
“They do what they do, and they do it well. And they’ve done it that way for 14 years with coach (Ferentz), and I’m sure they won’t change it.”
What Iowa doesn’t do well at this stage is stretch the field with a vertical passing attack. Some fans assumed that would change simply because the coordinators changed.
However, it’s not that simple because you can only do what your personnel allows you to do.
Davis offered the first hint that the offense wouldn’t change much when he said shortly after being hired that Iowa needed more speed at the receiver positions. It’s hard to spread things out and go deep on a regular basis when your roster is filled with possession receivers.
Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads would be wise to strengthen his rush defense in preparation for Saturday’s annual showdown against Iowa because it’s hard to picture the Hawkeyes beating the Cyclones through the air.
It’s hard to picture Iowa beating anybody through the air after what transpired Saturday.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football