SAN DIEGO, Calif. — The Hawkeyes want to be physical against USC. Generally, might is probably Iowa’s best thing against a speedy Pac-12 team.
It makes sense for the No. 16 Hawkeyes (9-3), who’ll face No. 22 USC on Friday in the Holiday Bowl. It’s also one of those “easier said than done” things.
Offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs is on the periphery of that, as a tackle, but the junior went from talking about the mayhem and grunt of a QB sneak and into a discussion on what it’s going to take to beat USC.
“I think our physicality is something that’s going to be a game changer,” Wirfs said. “Coming across the line of scrimmage and being able to hit, that’s going to be huge in this game.”
Monday was offensive coordinator day at the Holiday Bowl, at least for the Hawkeyes. Brian Ferentz met with the media and you know what the first question was.
For the second consecutive season, Iowa finished 10th in the Big Ten in rushing. In 2017, the Hawkeyes were 11th. That’s a tough way to make a living for a program that would love to be able to run the ball 70 percent of the time.
“I think we want to run the ball. I don’t think that, I know that,” Ferentz said. “In a perfect world, we’d be running 70 percent of the time. That would mean we were winning, all of the time. We were in control of the game. The reality is, across a 12-game schedule, it’s not always going to look like that.”
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Iowa does still want to run the ball. The rushing totals in Iowa’s three losses this season were 1, 70 and 87 yards. It’s not turning into a passing offense, but in the last two years, the yardage difference between run and pass has tilted toward pass by more than 1,000 yards (1,089 this season with 2,763 passing and 1,647 rushing). The 1,647 also is Iowa’s lowest output since 2012.
“Our philosophy hasn’t changed in 20 years, it hasn’t changed in 40 years,” Ferentz said. “We want to run the football, get that established early and get off to a fast start.”
But what does balance even mean anymore? Did the Hawkeyes run as much as they passed or does “balance” now mean something different?
“Mike Leach (Washington State coach and Air Raid practitioner) probably said it best when talking about balance, ‘You need to make sure guys touch the ball,’” Ferentz said. “In that regard, I think we were fairly balanced. ... Nothing is ever as good as you want it to be. The key is are you winning football games, are you finding a way to do that? Are you making sure you’re playing team football and that’s going to be the emphasis for us.”
So, Brian Ferentz just quoted a passing coach — Mike Leach is for sure that — and also defined balance by making sure the players who needed to touch the ball got to touch the ball. This sounds a lot like the Minnesota game plan. Wide receivers Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Tyrone Tracy were targeted eight times apiece. Iowa QB Nate Stanley only completed 14 passes in the game. That was the right players getting touches.
Speaking of which, the running game did improve. It bottomed out in October. Against the top competition on the schedule, the Hawkeyes averaged 2.2 yards per carry for the month. In November, it went up to 4.3. Injuries in the offensive line settled. Freshman center Tyler Linderbaum learned the nuances.
And, oh yeah, freshman running back Tyler Goodson started. Yes, before you want to shoot everything Iowa does in the running game into space, let’s see what Goodson does first. Goodson leads the Hawkeyes with 590 yards and is on track to become the first true freshman in Iowa history to lead the Hawkeyes in rushing.
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“You certainly don’t want to overload a young player early,” Ferentz said. “But we knew he was going to play. I thought he acquitted himself well, made some big plays but also had some freshman plays and made some mistakes that are certainly going to hurt us in ballgames, which happens with young players. Just felt like toward the end of the year, he had nine games under his belt and felt like he was ready to do that.”
Ferentz was asked about Stanley. He mentioned the adversity Stanley has fought through in his career. The Hawkeyes having the Big Ten’s 11th-, 10th- and 10th-ranked counts as adversity. Kind of the definition.
“I think it’s a really difficult position to play,” Ferentz said. “I think it’s a difficult position to play anywhere. I think it’s a really difficult position to play at the University of Iowa. The most popular player on the team is always going to be the backup quarterback.
“When I think of Nate, I look at a guy who’s won a boatload of games as a starter and who’s done it with grace, dignity and he’s overcome some tough challenges and that’s probably his best attribute. If you’re going to compete and be a competitor, things aren’t going to go your way all of the time. There’s going to be ups and downs. Nate Stanley has handled it all with class and grace, probably more so than other people along the way. I have a ton of respect for that.”
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