Iowa didn’t change anything after struggling to mediocre seasons in different years. Instead, better execution has the Hawkeyes one win away from the College Football Playoff after beating Nebraska.
LINCOLN, Neb. — Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard laughed Friday as he thought about a quote he hears often from Hawkeyes offensive line coach Brian Ferentz. “I don’t care if the other team knows what we’re running,” Beathard said, channeling the son of Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz. “We’d better come off the ball and block it better than they can defend it.”
In its purest sense, what that quote describes is the ideal football team—one that executes its assignments so precisely that it can tell the opponent the upcoming play and still run that play successfully. In a smaller-picture sense, that quote does a fair job of describing the 2015 Hawkeyes. Every opponent knows what Iowa does. The elder Ferentz has remained fairly constant since taking over in December 1998. Even as his program trended down and the calls for his job intensified, Ferentz resisted the urge to make huge schematic changes. Instead, he relied on the players in the program to run the same plays better and the coaches in the program to coach the same plays better. This would be the definition of madness if it hadn’t worked so well this season. “You kind of know what you’re going to get when you play Iowa,” Beathard said. “You get a tough run game, and we’re also going to throw it around a little bit.”
Nebraska knew what it would get with Iowa on Friday. The Cornhuskers knew that even though the defensive line is one of their strengths, the Hawkeyes would run right at them. They knew they’d see slant. They knew they’d see outside zone. These are not complex concepts. Nebraska held that running game in check until the third quarter, when even though the Cornhuskers probably knew based on formation and down-and-distance that slant or outside zone might be coming, Iowa simply blocked those plays better than Nebraska could defend them. The results were 29- and 68-yard touchdown runs by Jordan Canzeri on consecutive Iowa plays. Combine those with four interceptions of Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr.—including the pick-six that Iowa’s Parker Hesse tipped to himself near the Nebraska goal line — and the result was a 28–20 win that made the Hawkeyes 12–0 for the first time in school history.
Does that make Iowa one of the nation’s best four teams? Not necessarily. The Hawkeyes haven’t played the toughest schedule. But Iowa will get one more chance to prove itself next week in Indianapolis. The opponent will be Michigan State, Ohio State or Michigan. That opponent is almost guaranteed to be ranked in the top 10 by the College Football Playoff Selection Committee. If it’s Michigan State, the Spartans probably will be ranked in the top four. If Iowa’s 12 wins are a fluke, the Spartans, Buckeyes or Wolverines will expose the Hawkeyes. But what if those 12 wins aren’t simply a product of the schedule? What if they are the result of a team with special chemistry that happens to block and tackle quite well? We’ll find out next week. Iowa will either win or it won’t. It will either make the playoff or it won’t.
Those stakes seem to fit entirely with the personality of the head Hawkeye. "The only way we're going to get there, we've got to run the table,” Kirk Ferentz said. ”That’s our only chance.” If you think they’ve reached this point because of a soft schedule, great. “I don’t really care what other people think,” Beathard said. Because of the way the schedule has shaken out across the country, all the Hawkeyes have to care about is winning one more game.
Iowa is not built for style points. “We’re not trying to be pretty,” Ferentz said Friday. “We’re just trying to be productive.” Friday’s was not a beautiful win, though those two Canzeri runs were blocked beautifully. If Iowa alumnus Bret Bielema thought his Arkansas team’s bowl win against Texas last year was “borderline erotic,” then these (see them here and here) were full-blown hat-on-hat pornography. Iowa left tackle Boone Myers combined with tight end Henry Krieger Coble to kick out two defenders on the run that Canzeri took 29 yards without being touched by a soul wearing red. “You look up and you see Canzeri running down the sideline,” Myers said. “You know you did your job, and you know all your teammates did their jobs.”
That truly is the main difference for the Hawkeyes this season. Ferentz’s matter-of-factness and unwillingness to engage in hyperbole frustrates Iowa’s fans to no end when the Hawkeyes aren’t winning, but now it feels like a revelation compared to the coaches who make it sound as if they’re splitting the atom instead of simply seeking a way to get a blocker on each defender. “It’s not like there’s anything magical going on here,” Ferentz said. “It’s just us doing a little bit better job in those areas that are critical to victory.”
That’s really all there is to it. Ferentz could have changed everything after last year’s 7–6 team gagged away a home game against Nebraska to close the regular season and got hammered by Tennessee in the TaxSlayer Bowl. He could have fired coordinators. He could have changed schemes. Season ticket sales were falling, and idiots like me were printing the monthly payouts for Ferentz’s obscenely large buyout and speculating on just how much that largesse could buy in Iowa City. Ferentz changed a few things—putting better players instead of youngsters and second-teamers on special teams units, for instance—but he didn’t change any of the fundamental facets of his program.
The way the 2015 and 2014 Nebraska games unfolded were particularly telling. Last year, Iowa led 24–7 in the third quarter and wound up losing 37–34 in overtime. “Last year’s final game of the season,” Ferentz said, “was really illustrative of how we don’t want to look.” The game had been billed as a referendum on the job of Nebraska coach Bo Pelini. Pelini’s team won and he got fired anyway. When Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst explained the firing, he said this: “In the final analysis, I had to evaluate where Iowa was.”
Translation: “Iowa is mediocre, and we shouldn’t have needed overtime to beat the Hawkeyes on the road.”
So what’s different this year? Nothing and everything. Ferentz picked Beathard to start at quarterback, and former starter Jake Rudock graduated and went to Michigan. They may all get reunited next Saturday. Otherwise, the Hawkeyes are running mostly the same plays on offense and defense and getting dramatically different results. Beathard said better leaders emerged in the off-season conditioning program. Myers said players police each other better and have cut down on the amount of plays blown by one person missing his assignment.
As Ferentz said, there is no magic. And therein lies the magic. Myers came to Iowa in 2013 as a 250-pound walk-on who had played tight end in a Wing-T offense in Webster City, Iowa. He had grown up loving the Hawkeyes, and he wasn’t sure he’d ever see a better team than the one he sat in Kinnick Stadium cheering on in 2009. That team started out 9–0. In his first year as the starter at a position whose last four occupants have been first-round draft picks, Myers is on a team that has played 12 times and won 12 times.
You may not think it can win a 13th, but that matters not to the Hawkeyes. They will do what they do. Whichever team Iowa faces in Indianapolis will know exactly what to expect. And if the Hawkeyes can block it better than that team can defend it, Iowa is going to the College Football Playoff.