By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Kirk Ferentz rarely makes bold or controversial statements to the media because that just isn’t his style.
His quotes are usually safe and predictable, much like his offense.
That’s why it came as a surprise to some when Ferentz told the media on Tuesday that his team wasn’t ready to compete against Michigan State this past Saturday in East Lansing, Mich.
That certainly looked to be the case as Michigan State prevailed 17-10 after bolting to a 14-0 lead.
“The first thing on the list is that we have to get ready to play every game in the Big Ten,” Ferentz said. “Conference play, you expect it to be challenging and tough, and that's got to be our approach certainly. Obviously we've got to be a better fundamental football team this week. That's something we'll work on like we do every week in practice. Take every rep and hopefully start building a little cumulative advantage on that, and then the other part is just being ready mentally to go kick off.
“I'm not sure that we were last Saturday for whatever reason. So that's a challenge, and that's something we'll have to learn, as well. But it's all about being ready, preparing during the week, giving ourselves a chance to be fundamentally sound, and then most importantly be ready to kick off and execute and handle whatever challenges pose at us.”
That’s some pretty powerful stuff from Ferentz, but nothing he hasn’t said before. A head coach is bound to repeat himself if he stays in one place long enough and Ferentz is the dean of FBS coaches in his 19th season at Iowa.
Ferentz never would throw a player or an assistant coach under the bus, but there are times when he will criticize the entire operation, himself included.
The closest Ferentz has come to criticizing his players was during the collapse in 2006 when he used the phrase “fat cats” in reference to some players who apparently had a sense of entitlement.
The problem with being candid is that sometimes it backfires and leads to criticism.
Instead of appreciating Ferentz for being truthful about the Michigan State loss, some fans are ripping him for not having his team ready for a key Big Ten road game.
So in some ways, Ferentz can’t win.
The concern now is that Ferentz's comments point to a more serious problem.
That argument gained strength when redshirt freshman tight end T.J. Hockenson said to the media after the Michigan State loss that Iowa wasn’t on the same page in practice.
You combine not being ready to play with not being on the same page in practice and then you get Iowa’s shabby performance at Michigan State and the fallout is inevitable.
Hockenson wasn't suggesting that the team is divided or that anything bad is festering behind the scene. He just thinks the team needs to practice better, and he's probably right.
Only time and results will determine if there is something truly wrong with the current Iowa besides being 0-2 in the conference.
A decisive win against lowly Illinois on Saturday probably wouldn’t eliminate all the concerns, but would be a step back in the right direction.
Anything less than a lopsided victory would be met with skepticism and concern because Illinois has such little credibility right now.
You never say never when it comes to an upset, especially between Big Ten opponents, but Ferentz would have some real explaining to do if Iowa lost on Saturday.
His quote about not being ready for the Michigan State game would be even more disturbing.
But we’ll cross that bridge when or if it happens.
The loss at Michigan State certainly wouldn’t be the first or the last time under Ferentz that Iowa wasn’t ready for a game.
Iowa looked dysfunctional during a 44-7 loss at Arizona State in the third game of the 2004 season, and yet, that team rebounded to win a share of the Big Ten title and finish 10-2 overall.
It’s hard to reach conclusions about Ferentz’s teams during the course of a season because most of them develop over time. The identity doesn’t change much, but the level of effectiveness does change from year to year.
I wouldn’t read too much into what Ferentz said because not being ready to play is a theory coaches use every now and then to describe a clunker. There are only so many ways to describe what led to a sobering defeat.
But should Iowa continue to struggle, then maybe Ferentz was hinting at a bigger problem.
We can't answer that right now, though, because we need more proof than just five games.
As for Hockenson’s comment about not being on the same page in practice, that was old news based on what he said Tuesday.
Hockenson told reporters that Iowa had maybe its two best days of practice on Monday and Tuesday.
“We’re just trying to move forward and keep pushing,” he said.
That quote is about as safe and free from controversy as you can get.