Commentary: Don't blame Kirk

BY JOSH BOLANDER | JULY 31, 2013 5:00 AM

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Through the first 14 years of Kirk Ferentz’s career in Iowa City, he helped the Black and Gold capture two Big Ten championships. He guided a doormat program to respectability in one of the nation’s toughest conferences. He won 100 games, played in two BCS bowl games, and made 10 total postseason appearances. He’s snubbed chances to bolt for the pros and spurned higher-profile programs to stay in Iowa City. To this day, he takes more heat than any other coach at Iowa. I bet he would do all of the same things over again.

You would’ve thought Ferentz was a bum last year if you spent any amount of time on campus. After watching the Hawkeyes collapse over the last six games of the 2012 season, the general consensus was that the Black and Gold’s headman should feel some heat under his throne.

Ferentz looks and sounds like a professional head coach — this, coming from someone who attended every football press conferences last year. When his team blew numerous leads to seemingly inferior opponents last season, the coach always seemed appropriately disappointed. He has the expression and demeanor down to a science. It’s an attitude he’s mastered from years of coaching, both at the professional and collegiate level. It’s a look that would make the average outsider think that he isn’t the problem. The look doesn’t lie. He’s not.

If anything, the coach should be admired for sticking to his game plan. For 15 years, he’s preached discipline, hard work, and above all else, execution. But it’s extremely difficult to bring in high-profile recruits to eastern Iowan. Ferentz’s style allows for a chance to win nearly every game — Iowa has defeated a team that has competed in a BCS bowl games in five of the last six seasons. Still, there are losses to midlevel programs that have no business competing with any team from the Big Ten. That’s frustrating to watch.

Iowa lost five games last year by an average of 3.2 points. They had a chance to win in six of their eight losses. In two games, Iowa’s opponent scored the winning points on a field goal on the final play of the game. Ferentz’s decision to play the clock and field position may be second-guessed, but it is the right call if the players on the field execute — which they didn’t do at all in 2012. There are three phases to every football game. All three units, at some point, let their coach down last season.

Despite having the Big Ten’s leading return specialist in Jordan Cotton last season, as well as the golden boot of placekicker Mike Meyer, the Hawkeyes’ field position throughout the year was dismal thanks to one of the worst statistical punters in the country last year in first year punter Connor Kornbrath.

His consistently bad placement put pressure on a defense that was led by a first-year coordinator and was missing many leaders from the year prior. Yet, the defense collected at least one takeaway in 11 of 12 games and tied for second in the conference in recovered fumbles — which is great if the offense can turn those into points.

Unfortunately for Hawkeye fans, the offense sputtered for large stretches of last season, failing to cross into the end zone when needed. And when the offense did put up points, the defense couldn’t hold the lead, which threw clock management out the window.

Is it Kirk Ferentz’s fault that he has had upwards of 15 running backs miss time because of injury or suspensions since Shonn Greene won the school’s first ever Doak Walker award? Is it the head coach’s fault that his quarterback shrunk in late-game pressure situations? Can we blame him for shuffling the offensive line around five times during the 2012 season because of injuries to some of his most experienced players?

Perhaps the most vexing part is that Ferentz’s system — endeared by the entire state for years — is slowly being left behind thanks to the rise in spread offensive attacks. Relying on timely turnovers and wearing opponents down with fundamental blocking schemes only works when the players are willing to fully commit themselves to the greater good. We didn’t see that at all last year.

Maybe its time for Ferentz to stop being the nice guy — I almost want to see him get mean. The gum-chomping all-smiles routine is old, and more people are willing to be critical of the Hawkeyes’ $3 million man. Is it possible that his routine is, perhaps, artificial? A calculated way to deflect attention off of his players that have failed him throughout last season? I’d venture to say yes.

Say what you will about Ferentz, but the man can coach. He knows how to handle criticism. Don’t forget that before the Hawks’ first Orange Bowl trip in 2002, a young Kirk Ferentz faced similar questions. Should we expect similar results?

This season will be a make-or-break year for Iowa. The schedule falls nicely into place when considering 10 of Iowa’s 12 opponents were bowl-eligible last season. The offensive line returns seven lettermen, all with starting experience. Sophomore Jake Rudock appears to be the favorite to take the snaps. And it finally appears as though the offense will have a stable of healthy backs to work with (knock on wood, of course).

Without a doubt Ferentz will keep things close. The question is whether this year’s Hawks will execute in pressure situations — as they did in ’09 — or fade away into the Big Ten’s basement, like last year. And that’s a question that can only be answered on the field.

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