By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The last time Brian Ferentz coached in a bowl game was a high point for Iowa’s embattled offensive coordinator and son of Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz.
Iowa’s 49-24 victory over the University of Southern California in the 2019 Holiday Bowl was maybe Brian Ferentz’s second-best performance as a play designer and play caller behind, of course, the head-scratching 55-24 beat-down against Ohio State in 2017 at Kinnick Stadium.
Or, maybe the Holiday Bowl was his best performance if you believe the Ohio State beat-down was a fluke or an anomaly.
Against USC, Brian Ferentz was aggressive, creative and unpredictable with his play calling.
Receivers Tyrone Tracy Jr. and Ihmir Smith-Marsette scored Iowa’s first two touchdowns on jet sweeps, and though Iowa only finished with 328 yards, the yards were put to get use due largely to the play calling.
The Iowa offense so desperately needs one of those performances from Brian Ferentz against Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day in Orlando, Florida, as does Brian Ferentz, who has gone from being a fan favorite to a source of ridicule.
Iowa won 10 games during the regular season despite having an offense that was ranked last in the Big Ten in total offense and that is currently ranked 123rd nationally.
Defense and arguably the best special teams in the country led the way to 10 wins, but the deficiencies on offense have kept Iowa from being elite, although, a chance to win 11 games still is pretty special.
But that’s just it.
Iowa has a chance to win 11 games despite having an offense that has performed woefully in the most critical moments, and rarely above average on its best day.
Iowa was outscored 93-17 in its three losses to Purdue, Wisconsin and Michigan and was held to fewer than 300 yards in all three games, including a season-low 156 yards against the Badgers.
Brian Ferentz not so long ago was a force to be reckoned with as Iowa’s offensive coordinator, and as the son of the longest tenured head coach in college football and Iowa’s all-time winningest head coach.
Unlike his soft-spoken father, Brian Ferentz is brash and speaks without a filter, and that made him more popular, and a media darling, after he replaced Greg Davis as the Iowa offensive coordinator in 2017.
Iowa fans had seen enough of Davis and his horizontal passing routes after five seasons.
Davis also kept it plain and simple with the media, rarely saying anything beyond predictable coach speak, while Brian Ferentz has a gift for gab, and isn’t afraid to push the boundaries just a little bit.
That style works when fans respect what you’re doing on the field, but that isn’t the case with Brian Ferentz right now.
Fair or not, many fans blame him for Iowa falling short in its quest to be elite this season.
A strong and successful performance in the Citrus Bowl wouldn’t shift the narrative, but it would soften the stand against Brian Ferentz heading into the offseason.
Regardless of what happens in the Citrus Bowl, the Iowa offense has performed far below an acceptable standard this season and that falls mostly on Brian Ferentz, even though Brian only has so much power and influence running his father’s offense.
Kirk Ferentz doesn’t call the plays, but the offense is built in a way that he believes football should be played with the run being used to set up the pass, and with very few risks taken.
The problem is that Iowa often struggles to sustain a productive running game despite its reputation as run-oriented team and that makes it hard to establish play action for the passing game, and the lack of play action makes it harder to stretch the defense.
As a result, Iowa often plays conservatively on offense and Brian Ferentz seems more concerned with not making mistakes than making plays.
There almost seems to be a paranoia on offense where something might go wrong if you think too far outside the box that Kirk Ferentz has carefully crafted and stuck to for over two decades.
Blame the quarterback
A close second behind Brian Ferentz in the blame game is junior quarterback Spencer Petras, and that’s to be expected.
Petras’s best statistic by far is his 13-5 record as Iowa’s starting quarterback because his other statistics, which include just nine touchdown passes and six interceptions, are mediocre to average at best.
Alex Padilla’s statistics aren’t any better, and in some cases are worse.
Padilla started three games when Petras was injured, and played most of the Northwestern game, and part of the Big Ten Championship game against Michigan.
Iowa won four of those five games and Padilla provided a spark at times, partly with his mobility in the pocket.
But from a statistical standpoint, Padilla has also been mediocre to average.
He is only completing 49.1 percent of his passes (55-of-112) for 636 yards and two touchdowns and two interceptions.
Padilla’s completion percentage has been hurt by several dropped passes, but he still hasn’t performed well enough to say that he clearly should be the starter.
Padilla had his chance, but just didn’t deliver.
Neither quarterback has delivered much this season, and that’s a concern.
It’s also perplexing because Brian Ferentz doesn’t even have to coach the quarterbacks. He has Ken O’Keefe to do that, and yet, the position still often under-performs.
Assuming Petras starts in the Citrus Bowl, it seems likely that his leash won’t be as long as before he was injured.
Nor should it be because the circumstances are now different with Padilla having seen extensive action.
“In my mind, Alex has gotten some opportunities and has done something with them,” Kirk Ferentz said. “Had Spencer stayed healthy, he wouldn’t have had that opportunity. But he stepped in and did a good job. We know a little bit more about him now than we did two months ago.
“But Spencer has done good things too.”
Barring a Superman-like performance from either Petras or Padilla in the Citrus Bowl, the quarterback competition truly should be open this coming spring.
Coaches always say that every position is open, but that’s often just predictable coach speak.
The current situation with Petras and Padilla is like when Jake Rudock and C.J. Beathard were competing for the starting quarterback job in 2014.
Rudock was a two-year starter, and had won some big games, but much of the glow had rubbed off near the end of his second season as the starter in 2014. The offense was sputtering and Beathard reportedly was ready to transfer rather than spend another season playing behind Rudock in 2015.
Kirk Ferentz was forced to make a decision and he chose Beathard, naming him the starter just days after the 2014 season had ended.
Rudock did what lots of quarterbacks do after being demoted or beat out and transferred out of the program.
Rudock played his final season at Michigan under Jim Harbaugh in 2015 and helped lead the way to 10 wins.
Beathard led Iowa to a 12-0 regular season in 2015, and to the Rose Bowl, and he also started in the 2016 season.
As for Petras and Padilla, don’t be surprised should one of them enter the transfer portal because it seems highly unlikely that one would be willing to sit behind the other during the 2022 season.
Petras could play two more seasons, while Padilla could play three should they both choose to use the additional year given due to the global pandemic.
Petras is from northern California while Padilla is from Colorado.
Neither quarterback has any family ties or local connections that would keep them in Iowa City.
They’re here to play football and to get an education, but Petras already has graduated, one of 10 players on the team to achieve that milestone in December.
Petras appears tailor-made for the transfer portal should he fall behind Padilla on the depth chart.
“It’s a situation where two good guys — I’m hoping that both players will grow and improve as we move forward,” Kirk Ferentz said. “I’m hoping they both stay here and let the best man win, one of those types of deals. But we’ll let them keep competing.”
There is always the chance that both quarterbacks will stay at Iowa no matter who starts, but it seems more likely that one of them will transfer this spring.
That would leave Iowa with three quarterbacks on scholarship for next season: either Petras or Padilla, freshman Joey Labas, who is from Ohio, and incoming freshman and Oklahoma native Carson May.
The word is that Labas has stood out in practice, and that he plays with some moxie.
Some of his teammates spoke highly of Labas at a press conference last week.
So maybe Labas is the quarterback of the future.
But will it matter should the offense continue to struggle?
It makes you wonder if the offense struggles mostly because of poor quarterback play? Or if the quarterbacks struggle mostly because of poor game planning and play calling?
The performance of the Iowa offensive line, despite the presence of All-America center Tyler Linderbaum, also has left much to be desired.
Perhaps the biggest advantage Padilla has over Petras is that he is more mobile. Padilla can extend plays with feet and that’s something Iowa hasn’t had since Beathard was healthy.
Nate Stanley was a three-year starter for Iowa from 2017 to 2019 and he won a lot of games behind center. But he lacked mobility and you could argue that it kept him from being elite, and it kept the offense from being elite.
Petras also lacks mobility, and he plays behind an offensive line that has struggled with pass protection.
It’s a terrible combination that could be exposed by Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl.
In a perfect world, Brian Ferentz would rely on his running game to create play action, but Iowa’s offense is far from perfect.
Tyler Goodson also will skip the bowl game to prepare for the 2022 NFL Draft, leaving Iowa without its leading rusher against an aggressive Kentucky defense that is battled-tested from playing in the Southeastern Conference.
Brian Ferentz faces a daunting task on Saturday in the Citrus Bowl, and Hawkeye nation will be watching closely.
His reputation has taken a hit and the only way for Brian Ferentz to shift the narrative would be for his offense to rise to the occasion on Saturday.
In other words, it’s time for the Iowa offense to do its part, and that starts with Brian Ferentz.