By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Kirk Ferentz in many ways is similar to Hayden Fry in believing how the game of football should be played.
Fry, despite all of his humor and his talk about exotics, or the fact that he led the way to ending the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust mentality in the Big Ten Conference, still relied heavily on running between the tackles, so much so that he called 42 running plays for Sedrick Shaw during a game at Michigan State in 1995, and that was with star receiver Tim Dwight and Shaw’s talented backup, Tavian Banks, on the team.
Iowa defeated the Spartans 21-7 in that game, and Shaw also had 41 carries for 214 rushing yards during a 33-20 victory over Wisconsin in 1995.
The Austin, Texas native would go on to rush for 1,447 yards and scored 15 touchdowns during the 1995 season.
Shaw still is Iowa’s all-time leading rusher with 4,156 yards, a record that has stood since 1996.
Shaw played with Dwight for three seasons at Iowa, and despite Dwight’s explosiveness, Shaw was almost always the No. 1 option on offense when healthy.
That is relevant in regard to Ferentz because Fry gave Ferentz his first big break in coaching by hiring him to coach the Iowa offensive line in 1981 when Ferentz was just 25-years old and had very little experience. Ferentz then spent nine seasons coaching under Fry at Iowa and was part of two Rose Bowl teams.
And now they rank first and second in all-time victories at Iowa, with Ferentz on top with 153 victories heading into Saturday’s Big Ten opener against Rutgers at Kinnick Stadium, while Fry retired in 1998 with 143 victories at Iowa.
And while passing has certainly been a key component since Fry rebuilt the Iowa program in the early 1980s, staying ahead of the chains behind a power rushing attack has been the heart of soul of Iowa football during that same time.
It made Iowa hard to beat under Fry, because he almost always had a good quarterback to provide balance. And his quarterbacks, along with his teams, were usually really good when the ground attack was functioning properly.
And it’s the same thing with Ferentz.
Iowa is tough to defeat when the running game is doing its part, but also vulnerable when it’s not.
You can say that about most football teams because balance on offense is the best way to keep defenses guessing.
“The bottom line is if you run the ball effectively, and you can certainly argue that four-and-a-half yards per carry is an effective number, then that should set you up to be able to throw with play action, and then that should, of course, burst your passing stats,” said former Iowa assistant coach Don Patterson, who was also the head coach for Western Illinois.
Iowa has a 45-22 record since the start of the 2014 season and was held to fewer than 100 rushing yards in 13 of the 22 losses, and to fewer than 150 rushing yards in all but two of the losses. The two exceptions were against Tennessee in the 2015 TaxSlayer Bowl when Iowa rushed for 244 yards during a 45-28 loss, and against Florida in the 2017 Outback Bowl when Iowa rushed for 171 yards during a 30-3 shellacking. Many of the rushing yards in both of those games were misleading and meaningless because the outcome already had pretty much been decided.
Importance of play action
Ferentz’s philosophy, and his game plan each week, is usually built around establishing the run because that allows Iowa to use play action, which is the ideal situation for the Iowa quarterback, who more times than not under Ferentz has been average in terms of mobility.
Current starter Nate Stanley is probably a little below average with regard to mobility, but he has a cannon for a throwing arm and is hard to tackle in the pocket, standing 6-foot-4 and weighing 243 pounds.
Give Stanley some time in the pocket, and the ability to keep linebackers and defensive backs off balance and guessing with play action, and then watch out.
Stanley attempted 30 passes in the 38-14 victory over Miami of Ohio in the season opener last Saturday and completed 21 of them to 10 different receivers.
But the Hawkeyes also rushed for 213 yards on 41 carries, creating the ideal environment for Stanley to excel.
“The run game kind opens up the rest of the offense for us,” Stanley said. “Whether that be getting extra people in the box allows us to throw the ball more. It definitely works a lot more when we play complementary football, the run and the passing game.”
Patterson works extensively with analytics in football and he shared a statistic from last season that shows just how impactful an effective rushing attack can be.
Big Ten teams, according to Patterson's research, finished 25-2 in the 27 games in which they outrushed their opponent by at least 100 yards last season.
“Here’s what it does for you, too, if you’re running the ball effectively it gives you a chance to stay ahead the chains,” Patterson said.
Patterson defined staying ahead of the chains as gaining at least four yards on first down.
Perception versus reality
Iowa is one of few college teams that still often uses a fullback, and that helps to feed the perception that Ferentz is old-fashioned and stuck in his ways.
Perception often supplants reality and that is true to a point with Ferentz and his legendary predecessor at Iowa.
Fry was known more as the riverboat gambler who had no problem with passing on any down, whereas Ferentz is the boring, methodical grinder who prefers running the ball over anything else because it’s safer and because it chews up the clock.
But reality shows that Ferentz is also willing to throw on just about any down, and history shows that Fry could grind and melt the clock with the best of them.
Consider that Stanley attempted 396 passes in 13 games last season, which is eight more passes than former Iowa quarterback Chuck Long attempted during the 1985 season when he finished runner-up for the Heisman Trophy.
Stanley did play in 13 games last season, while Long played in 12 games in 1985, but they both averaged at least 30 pass attempts per game.
Stanley threw three touchdown passes in the victory over Miami of Ohio and now has 55 for his career. He only needs 20 more to break Long’s school record of 74 scoring strikes.
Stanley will also leave Iowa as a three-year starter, while Long started for four seasons.
Stanley’s statistics are just more evidence that Ferentz really isn’t that conservative on offense compared to Fry.
And from a running perspective, Shaw had 837 rushing attempts over four seasons as a Hawkeye from 1992-96, while Ladell Betts finished with 831 carries over four seasons from 1998-01, his final three seasons under Ferentz.
So if Fry was the pass-happy gunslinger and Ferentz the methodical grinder, how do you explain that Shaw actually had more rushing attempts than Betts over four seasons?
Iowa had better receivers on offense during Shaw’s career compared to Betts, and yet, Fry still often called Shaw’s number because it usually produced positive results, considering Shaw averaged 5.0 yards per rushing attempt at Iowa
“You’ve heard Hayden use the term, and I’ve used it as a head coach because I’ve heard Hayden use it, and that is simply what his dad told him years ago; milk it until it’s dry,” Patterson said. “And if something’s working, for God’s sake, don’t forget about it.”
A son’s influence
Brian Ferentz is entering his third season as the Iowa offensive coordinator and he has convinced his father to think outside the box a little bit, to take more chances, and to acknowledge that style matters, not as much as substance, but it still matters.
But even Brian Ferentz couldn’t convince his father to abandon the run, or to even make it less of an emphasis because Kirk Ferentz believes that the best way to sustain success is to be balanced on offense, and that starts with an effective ground attack.
Bran Ferentz believes that, too.
Much has been written and said about Iowa’s current group of receivers, and deservedly so, because they are a talented bunch, even more so now with the addition of Michigan transfer Oliver Martin.
But don’t overlook the running game, or assume that it’ll take a backseat to throwing the ball because so much of Iowa’s success in passing depends on whether it can run the ball.
What made Iowa’s 2004 Big Ten champion team so special and unique is that it defied the odds, and logic, by having success despite having virtually no running game.
“The more versatile you are on offense, the more you can do,” said Iowa junior running back Toren Young said. “So when we’re able to run the ball, they stack the box and that opens up the passing game. If everybody is rushing, we’re getting some things in the passing game that’s loosening up a little bit, and that helps the run game.
“So just being able to do different things and being balanced on offense will really help us moving forward.”