IOWA CITY, Ia. - When Kirk Ferentz wraps up his coaching career, Saturday night's 24-3 victory against Penn State will be shining example used to describe his approach to the game of football. If not for technology, a fan might think he's watching film from the 1950s and that would make the Iowa architect proud.
In an age of spread offenses and quarterbacks that sprint like running backs and receivers, Ferentz has stayed true to the art of high percentage football. The naysayer would call it conservative. The X-Box age would view it as a cure for insomnia.
The Hawkeyes were the superior team Saturday. You got the feeling that 24-3 might have been 48-3 if Ferentz and his coaching staff kept the foot on the gas. In their minds, there was no need to take those unnecessary chances.
Why give an overmatched Nittany Lions offense any gifts? It wasn't going to score enough points to win on its own if you spotted it another four quarters. Allow Iowa's strength, an unrelenting defense, to dominate the game.
You could sense a little bit of defensiveness in quarterback Ricky Stanzi's voice following the win. He looked like Peyton Manning in the first half and Trent Dilfer circa Baltimore Ravens after the break. He wasn't challenging the play calling in the third and fourth quarters but the competitor in him knew his offense could have broken the game open if given the chance.
"I think we were calling some different stuff," a diplomatic Stanzi said. "We were trying to run the ball and establish that a little bit and we just went away from what we were doing early on. I think we could have taken a little bit more if we wanted to but we were trying to do some other things."
In other words - the coaches weren't going to let us take chances and let an overmatched but capable team win this game with a turnover or other errors. Iowa (4-1) worked the clock and punter Ryan Donahue's powerful leg. The senior from Chicago booted the ball five times in the second half for a 40.2 average and hit three of them inside the PSU 20.
"The defense was playing well," Ferentz said. "One thing you don't want to do is get a good defensive performance and lose the game because you're being stupid or greedy. Feel of the game factors into it."
An opportunity presented itself at the beginning of the fourth quarter for Iowa to put the game away for all intents and purposes. The Hawkeyes were set up with a fourth and seven at the Penn State 33 with 13:38 remaining in the ball game.
Ferentz was considering going for it until some of his assistants, who he refused to name, talked him out of taking a chance. The Hawkeyes took a delay of game penalty and Donahue dropped the ball at the visitor seven. The defense then forced the Lions to punt.
"I was half-tempted to take a shot at it, until the guys (his coaches) said it might be smart to punt," Ferentz said.
The Hawkeyes showed early in the game an ability to move the ball against a good, but not great Penn State defense. They took the opening kickoff 77 yards to the Lions' three before a false start penalty contributed to them settling for a 20-yard Michael Meyer field goal. Stanzi completed all four of his passes on the drive for 52 yards.
Iowa raised its lead to 10-0 late in the first quarter when it drove 51 yards in seven plays. Stanzi, who was 4 for 4 passing on the march that culminated in a nine-yard TD toss to Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, contributed a nine-yard rush and accounted for 47 yards in the series.
With the cushion, the Hawkeyes' game plan transitioned from pass- to run-oriented. Stanzi threw a first-quarter interception, which likely contributed to the coaches dialing it down.
Late in the second quarter, with Penn State lining up to stop the run, the Hawkeyes' offensive line imposed its will. A pair of Stanzi passes to Marvin McNutt set Iowa up at the Lions' 32. Robinson then carried it on five consecutive plays before Stanzi plunged into the end zone from the one. Iowa led 17-0 with just under four minutes left in the first half and it was time for the defense and Donahue to bring home the victory.
"They made some adjustments and the other thing was our field position in the second half," Ferentz said. "I'm not complaining about it, but it was dramatically different. We just had a long field a lot of the time. I thought our offense did a good job moving it out; changing field position."
Iowa's best field position after halftime was a drive that started on its own 22. It's average starting field position in the second half was its own 13-yard line for five offensive drives.
Penn State's average field position in the second half was its own 29-yard line, but it started two drives at its 42 or better. The Lions punted on both of those possessions.
Nobody should be surprised by Iowa's plan Saturday night. As Ferentz says, it's about a feel.
I wrote in my breakdown this week and repeated on various radio spots that I didn't see Penn State's offense being a good match-up for the Hawkeye defense. That played out on Saturday and there was no reason for Iowa to help the visitors by taking risks.
Saturday's game reminds me a lot of last season's season finale where the Hawkeyes dropped Minnesota 12-0. Again, critics will call it conservative play calling. Ferentz would defend it as being smart and playing percentages.
It's Kirk Ferentz football. It's Iowa football. It's good for 19 wins in the last 22 games.
Some people pick on Iowa's offensive play calling. Other folks question the bend-but-don't break defense at times. None of these or other phases stand alone. It's an approach where they all work in conjunction with one another. Play high percentage offense, play defense so the other team has to make a lot of plays to beat you and let your punter get a workout.
True freshman quarterback Robert Bolden found out as the game went on that there were underneath routs to be had and soft spots in the Hawkeye zone. But the odds of him continuing to hit those areas and his receivers making plays weren't good. Maybe down the road he'll be able to it, but it wasn't going to happen on Saturday.
There's no need to worry about Penn State "figuring out" the Hawkeyes' offense in the second half or that leading to a blue print for future opponents. Iowa played its game. It was classic Ferentz football.