Monday, May 20, 2024
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Can the Iowa offense evolve? Tim Lester tasked with casting jokes aside by implementing new-look approach

IOWA CITY, Iowa — The jokes are worn out at this point. We could spend from now until fall camp doing a Tom Brady-grade roast of Iowa’s offense. Not many offensive units have slumped to the point of becoming the subject of memes and fake Cameos fodder

Not many have been this bad, either. Epically bad, actually. It defies logic that Iowa continues to win at a high level. But, to their enduring credit, the Hawkeyes do just that. All together, Iowa’s offense has become one of the offseason’s most intriguing storylines to follow. 

Iowa goes into the 2024 season having finished last and second-last nationally in total offense the past two seasons, respectively. No FBS program has finished in the bottom two in consecutive years since Washington State (2008-09). 

Oklahoma State running back Ollie Gordon II had as many touchdowns (22) as Iowa had as a team. Michigan’s Blake Corum had six more (28). Thirty-five individual players accounted for more total yards than the Hawkeyes last season. 

We could go on, but that seems cruel and unusual. Again, the approach has “worked.” Those Washington State teams finished a combined 3-22. In the last two seasons, Iowa has won 18 games (10 in 2023) and played for the Big Ten championship. Since 2019, Iowa has won 10 games three times. 

Coach Kirk Ferentz, 68, may be nearing the end of what will certainly be a Hall of Fame career as the FBS’ longest-tenured coach enters his 26th season leading Iowa, but he didn’t get this far without knowing what he was doing.

But with the clock ticking on offensive improvements, and with both the Big Ten and College Football Playoff expanding, the question must be asked: Now what? Serious answers only. 

In search of those answers, CBS Sports granted anonymity to a handful of college football sources to weigh in with their thoughts. 

“Go to every women’s clinic in America, and the No. 1  question you get from the wives and the moms is why do you run it up the middle so much? Kirk is an old-line guy at heart, and he wants to get everybody blocked. I get all that, but you have to be willing to deal with a little bit of gray area.

“When you go to Broadway, when you go to a show, you want to see some entertainment. Who wants to go watch a basketball game where somebody wins 42-40?” one former Power Five head coach

Enter first-year Iowa offensive coordinator Tim Lester — because someone had to take over for Brian Ferentz, the head coach’s son who had served in the position since 2017. The former Patriots tight ends coach once coached Rob Gronkowski en route to Super Bowl 46. 

A head coach hiring a child is a potential problem at every institution, however. Former Iowa athletic director Gary Barta skirted around this nepotism situation by having Brian Ferentz report to him. The son began coaching at Iowa as offensive line coach in 2012 before being elevated to offensive coordinator in 2017. 

If the offense under the elder Ferentz always seemed to be a bit sluggish, maybe that was actually the point. It’s offset by defensive coordinator Phil Parker and special teams coach LeVar Woods being two of the best at what they do in college football. 

But the scales became so tipped to one side that Iowa’s offensive struggles emerged as a national story. Parker’s unit pulled its weight; actually, the defense pulled the entire program along. Since 2017, the Iowa defense has intercepted 114 passes, averaging a pick every 25.5 attempts by the opposition. Since that same year, Iowa is tied with Penn State in Big Ten turnover margin (+45).

There have been times in recent seasons where the defense legitimately had to be counted on to score for Iowa to have a chance. All-American punter Tory Taylor was such a force with his leg that the Australian had a line of licensed T-shirts with the catchphrase, “Punting Is Winning.” 

NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Iowa

Tory Taylor played a huge part in Iowa’s success in recent seasons as the offense struggled.  USATSI

At Iowa, it wasn’t always wrong. 

“Imagine if you lived across the hall from a world-renowned hacker. How are you still getting hacked? [Parker’s] been hacking offenses in the Big Ten and across the country for years … Go across the hall and get the intel [for your offense.]” — a former Big Ten staffer 

The situation had become so dire that incoming AD Beth Goetz, president Barbara Wilson and Ferentz all came together in late October to announce Brian Ferentz would not be back. Or, as Goetz put it, ” … this is his last season with the program.” 

You don’t need a thesaurus to surmise Brian Ferentz had been fired. The situation officially had become a distraction. Brian Ferentz has since been hired as an analyst at Maryland

Before last season, Barta had amended Brian Ferentz’s contract to include what amounted to performance bonuses. Iowa had to average at least 25 points per game and win at least seven games. The Hawkeyes won 10, but “The Drive For 325” — 25 points per game x 13 games — became a tedious chase that opened up the younger Ferentz to further mockery. 

” In my humble opinion, 50,000 feet, [the offensive issues are] either arrogance or ignorance, because at Iowa it’s not due to personnel. There are too many Hawkeyes running up and down the field on Sundays. They’re not just dominating, they’re All-Pros. Their recruiting has been strong and consistent, their development has been strong and consistent … [but] it’s like an old-world pitcher who can’t get any run support.” that same former Big Ten staffer

Lester was hired in large part because he’s an accomplished former head coach (Western Michigan 2017-2022) and, well, he was available. The former Purdue quarterbacks coach spent 2023 as an analyst for the Packers. Ferentz compared the year in the NFL to a sabbatical. 

“It’s like a year of research … The bad news is it usually means you got fired the year before when you get to do that in our business,” Ferentz told CBS Sports. 

In a strange parallel, Lester has been through something like this before. In 2022, the Western Michigan offense was struggling and Lester demoted coordinator Jeff Thorne late during a 5-7 season. Those Broncos were, well, Iowa-like offensively, finishing 10th or worst in the 12-team MAC in rushing yards, total yards and points per game. 

Overall in those six seasons, Lester’s Western Michigan teams outdid Iowa offensively in six key categories: rush yards per game, yards per game, total offense, completion percentage, pass yards per game and points per game. 

(OK, pretty much everyone surpassed Iowa on those categories, but consider the Hawkeyes within the Big Ten alone from 2017-2022. It finished in the top half offensively of those 36 combined categories six times.)

Renowned quarterback trainer George Whitfield loves Lester at Iowa. The two met in 2016 when Lester was serving as Purdue’s quarterbacks coach and Whitfield was brought in to help with the Boilermakers’ NFL Draft prep. That season, Purdue QB David Blough had thrown for career highs in yards (3,352) and touchdowns (25). 

“Football fans can expect to see Iowa’s offense with updated software with a new leadership,” Whitfield said. “The system is going to reflect an open, multi-tiered attack. It’s also going to allow them to dictate terms.”

So far, the parties are aligned. 

“I think there are pretty obvious reasons why we struggled offensively. It doesn’t take a detective to figure that out,” Ferentz said. 

Ferentz wasn’t specific, but there were injuries last season on the offensive line. And, of course, you’re nothing without a quarterback these days. Iowa’s three scholarship quarterbacks going into the spring had suffered a) consecutive season-ending injuries (Cade McNamara), b) completed less than 50% of his career passes (Deacon Hill) and c) had thrown seven career passes (Marco Lainez).

“I’ve watched Iowa on film … I was joking at the time. They set offensive football back 50 years. It had zero imagination. I think you’ve got to be able to think outside the box and be creative. You’ve got to have a quarterback who can make something happen. I’m not saying he has to be a massive scrambler, but on third down, [he] has to be able to get you 5 yards.” — that same former Power Five head coach

Hill entered the transfer portal after the spring. This week, former Northwestern QB Brandon Sullivan transferred in to join the room. Iowa’s 2024 transfer class is ranked 123rd by 247Sports

“Our system is nothing like what’s been done here in the past,” Lester said. 

“I love watching their defense. That means you can go for a few more fourth downs. You can spread it out, you can do crazy stuff … This is the million-dollar question now, literally. Are you attracting guys now on style of play or are you attracting them financially? Before, I would have said winning and style of play are two huge factors. Does money become that thing now that does it? I can’t answer that.” — one former FBS coach 

Lester, 47, is best described as respected and capable. If he is the face of the offense going forward, it’s most likely because of its efficiency, not its staggering ineffectiveness. And with Parker’s defense, the Iowa offense just being average could get the Hawkeyes to the College Football Playoff.

The Hawkeyes would have been on the edges of contention last year, winning 10 despite averaging slightly more than 15 points per game. 

“I’m just not big into [other coaches’] self-promotion, not big into look-at-me guys,” Ferentz said earlier this year. “Sometimes, those guys are really good and the coach does deserve credit. But I think, again, it gets back to what’s the bigger picture? Are we trying to be a showy offensive team or a high-blitz team? That stuff is all great until you’re giving up the big play, or on offense turning it over to the other team and all the sudden your defense is out there defending 20 yards.” 

“Offensively, you’ve seen Nick Saban change. Gary Patterson changed. There was a day you could play great defense and win 14-10 and people were fired up. But that’s over. Everybody wants entertainment and Tik Tok and YouTube. Baseball went through that — nobody could get a hit, nobody could get on. They made baseball more exciting.” — that same former Power Five coach

In the end, no offensive coordinator is going to call a play, or series of plays, that aren’t signed off on by the head coach. In the spring, I asked Ferentz: Considering the way Iowa plays and wins, will the offense be demonstrably different? 

“I think it’s going to look different, but I think philosophically we’re in line … We played good defense here pretty much 20-plus years. That was a building block coming in.

“But playing complementary football and not being reckless with the football is a big part of that, and being good on special teams. That’s been a big part of our blueprint.”

Does that sound like an offensive fix?

Serious answers only.

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