By Pat Harty
ORLANDO, Florida – A 2021 season that saw the Iowa football team climb to No. 2 in the Associated Press poll ended Saturday with an all-too familiar script.
Iowa performed well enough on defense and special teams to have a chance to prevail against Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl, but once again, the offense failed to deliver, and the result was a gut-wrenching 20-17 loss that capped a 10-4 season.
Under normal circumstances, a 10-win season, and a Big Ten West Division title, would be reason to celebrate and to feel good about the future.
But the circumstances at Iowa where the head coach just finished his 23rd season, and where his son is the embattled offensive coordinator are far from normal.
Kirk Ferentz now heads into the offseason with an offense that needs a severe upgrade, with a disgruntled fan base that is tired and frustrated with his son’s performance as offensive coordinator and with a starting quarterback who is suffering emotionally from being at the center of the fans’ rage.
It’s easy to forget that Iowa won 10 games this season because of the negativity surrounding the struggling offense.
Kentucky only scored seven points in the second half of Saturday’s game, but that was enough because Iowa only scored three points in the first half and was held to fewer than 20 points for the fifth game this season.
“I mean, obviously we have to score more points, and we are well aware of that.,” Kirk Ferentz said in his post-game press conference. “You know, that’s part of the next couple months here, this coming month, or this month, I should say, present month, be focused mostly on recruiting.
“Our guys get back at the end of the month, and we’ll start working towards next year. Once, we get off the road from recruiting, that is when we get introspective and study things we are doing and look at things we need to do.”
What the coaches need to do is simple yet challenging at the same time.
The offense has to improve in every facet, and it starts, of course, with execution and with play calling.
Some will say that 66-year old Kirk Ferentz needs to overhaul the offense, but that seems highly unlikely at this stage of his career, and with his long-standing belief about how football should be played.
Ferentz created a delicate situation when he made his son, Brian Ferentz, the offensive coordinator at a relatively young age of 33 and with limited coaching experience. The perception is that Brian Ferentz climbed the coaching ladder faster than most because of his father.
It wouldn’t be an issue if the offense were doing its part, but too many times under Brian Ferentz the offense has failed to produce positive results.
Brian Ferentz made some nice adjustments at halftime of the Citrus Bowl that helped Iowa erase a 13-3 halftime deficit.
But as Kirk Ferentz said after the game, Iowa has to score more points because 17 points won’t win too many games.
It also puts too much pressure on the defense to perform at a high level and that was apparent in the Citrus Bowl when the defense allowed a late touchdown that proved to be the difference in the game.
“I don’t think there are any magic answers right now,” Kirk Ferentz said. “Just a couple conversions here and there, that type of thing, and it’s a really fine line. We have got to keep pushing.”
The problems on offense are wide-ranging, but it starts with an inability to sustain a rushing attack and sub-par quarterback play.
The Citrus Bowl was one of few games this season when the Iowa rushing attack was effective.
Redshirt freshmen running backs Gavin Williams and Leshon Williams rushed for 98 and 42 yards, respectively, and they both ran hard and with a purpose.
That’s encouraging since Tyler Goodson will not return for his senior season after having led Iowa in rushing in each of the past three seasons.
Goodson opted out of the Citrus Bowl to prepare for the 2022 NFL draft.
“We have been impressed with Gavin and Leshon,” Kirk Ferentz said. “Gavin has played some. Thought, he did a great job today. Ran hard and ran tough. Leshon, really proud of him. I thought he stepped up and played really well. So happy about that.”
The Iowa offensive line also performed better in the Citrus Bowl compared to most of the regular-season games.
Injuries and inexperience have plagued the offensive line, but injuries are part of the game, and a lack of experience could be the result of poor recruiting.
The fact that Iowa had arguably the best center in college football in junior Tyler Linderbaum, but still averaged fewer than 120 rushing yards per game is cause for concern, especially since Linderbaum is likely headed to the NFL as a first-round pick.
Right now, it’s hard to envision the offensive line being better next season without its best player from this season.
And with Spencer Petras’ lack of mobility at quarterback, that’s another concern heading into the offseason.
“For me, mobility is a big part,” said Petras, who threw three interceptions in the Citrus Bowl. “I’m not going to turn into a guy who runs a four-five, but just being able to move the chain here and there and get five yards, escape the pocket and stuff like that, that’s a big point of emphasis for me moving forward.”
Iowa has invested a lot of money on offense with Brian Ferentz making nearly $1 million annually and with quarterbacks coach Ken O’Keefe making around $600,000 annually.
So, it’s fair and reasonable to expect better results.
The next couple of weeks could see the Iowa roster change in this age of the transfer portal.
There is speculation sophomore quarterback Alex Padilla will enter the portal instead of sticking around to be the backup for another season behind Petras.
Padilla started three games this season when Petras was injured, and while Padilla performed well at times in leading Iowa to three wins, he apparently didn’t do enough to supplant Petras as the starter.
Padilla is more mobile than Petras, which helps behind a struggling offensive line. But Padilla also completed less than 50 percent of his passes this season.
The problems at quarterback cause you to wonder if it’s due to having mediocre players at that position or an offensive approach and strategy that makes it hard for a quarterback to be successful.
Whatever the case, Brian Ferentz and Kirk Ferentz have a lot of work to do because the offense is keeping the team from being elite.
Iowa was good enough on defense and special teams this season to be elite, but it takes three phases to win football games, and right now, the offense is falling woefully short.
Another concern about next season is that both Ohio State and Michigan return to the schedule.
Iowa also has to play at Purdue in between facing Ohio State and Michigan, and Purdue’s spread offense has caused fits for Iowa’s defense.
Fans are clamoring for Kirk Ferentz to modernize his offense, which is another way of saying it’s time to use more spread formations.
Kirk Ferentz is a sort of old-fashioned when it comes to offense in that he still believes a power running game should set the tone and be the foundation.
But that approach isn’t working, and fans are growing impatient, even with 10 wins and a Big Ten West Division title.
Kirk Ferentz has coached Iowa for so long to where expectations are now maybe higher than he can meet.
Iowa hasn’t won a Big Ten title since 2004 when Brian Ferentz was an offensive lineman for the Hawkeyes, and to go 17 years without winning a conference title is a long time, especially in this age when coaches get fired for much shorter droughts.
Kirk Ferentz’s job isn’t in jeopardy, nor should it be.
But fans are frustrated with his offense, and with how his son is running it and they want to see changes immediately.