Miller: Thoughts the '07 Iowa Football Season

Kirk Ferentz & his coaching staff have a lot of questions on their hands regarding the state of the program. Iowa is 18-18 since 'Tate to Holloway' and while that's not a horrible three-year mark at Iowa historically, it's not the mark the coaches want or what the fans have come to expect in the Ferentz era of Iowa football. Jon Miller takes an indepth look (more than 10 pages) at Iowa football.

As the Iowa Hawkeyes head into the off season, with little hope for a bowl bid, there are a lot of questions being asked by fans and the media alike. 


Even if Iowa somehow gets a bowl bid, the questions will not go away and I don't see how they will change all that much.


In his Sunday column, Senior Writer Rob Howe asked a lot of questions and shed some light on some interesting aspects of the program. 


Rob raised a question that will receive a lot of mileage over the course of the next nine and a half months; is the program in better shape now than it was after the Alamo Bowl loss to Texas last year?


And after an off-season where Kirk Ferentz said that he was going to evaluate every aspect of his program and go back to doing things the way he had in the early portion of this decade, after a year where the term ‘fat cats' was thrown out by the head Hawk to describe his program, are things any better than they were?  Or has the program taken another step backwards?


Here is an attempt to take an inventory of the program from where I see it.  I am not a coach, nor have I ever coached at any level, but there are some aspects that seem out of kilter to most observers of Iowa football.


Question: Iowa's offensive line has no inadequate development over the last two years.  This year's offensive line was incredibly inconsistent, and their play in game #12 looked like it could have been tape from September.  Why is this the case?


That's a huge question.  Kirk Ferentz has been called an offensive line guru, among many other glowing adjectives.  There is no doubt that the man knows that position quite well.  So this has to be troubling and confounding to him.  This year's line had a lot of young players in the mix, or players that hadn't seen a lot of action.  So a certain level of inconsistency was to be expected.  But when your most veteran offensive lineman struggled more in the last two games of the season than he had at any other point in the season, that is a concern.   


Kyle Calloway, Bryan Bulaga, Travis Meade, Julian Vandervelde and Dan Doering made the first starts of their careers this year.  Dace Richardson had as much playing experience as any lineman, but he missed nearly the entire year with a knee injury.  Rob Bruggeman was probably the second best lineman on the team during spring drills, but he blew out his knee and came back in game 10 and played sparingly.  Bulaga might have unseated Meade earlier than the Illinois game, but he injured his shoulder in August and early September, slowing down his development and limiting his playing time.  Vandervelde was injured during the Wisconsin game and missed some time. 


Those factors have to be included in the overall evaluation of the play of the line this year.  But the Illinois win was game #7.  Doering and Bulaga played extensively in that game and Iowa won four of their final six games.  The competition they faced was not as stout as the teams Iowa played in the first six games, another factor that has to be mentioned.  Seth Olsen will not include footage from the Minnesota or WMU games on his career highlight tape, and those games were #11 and #12 against two of the worst defensive lines in the nation, statistically.  


Iowa quarterback Jake Christensen was sacked more times than any other quarterback in the nation this year.  As a team, Iowa has given up the 2nd most sacks in America, and on the average, they are 115th in sacks allowed per game out of 119 teams in division one.  Some of those sacks can be attributed to the quarterback, via coverage sacks or indecision.  But the number of sacks allowed this year, in year nine of the Kirk Ferentz era of Iowa football, are very, very alarming.


Every offensive linemen returns for next year, and every single position on the line is open for competition.  The lack of seniors or upper class contributors on this year's line raises a question that falls into the recruiting/evaluation category, too.  That cannot be overlooked or ignored.


If players stay healthy, Rafael Eubanks is likely your starting center, even if Bruggeman is even or better at the position, because Bruggeman is a better guard candidate than Eubanks.  One would think that Seth Olsen will earn the right tackle position, and Bruggeman, Bulaga, Doering, Calloway and Andy Kuempal will push for the three remaining positions. 


There are a lot of areas to improve upon this offseason, with offensive line being front and center. After all, the old axiom goes that ‘everything starts up front'.  More questions; are the messages the coaching staff is sending getting through?  Are the players Iowa has on its team capable of making the improvements?

Question:  In my opinion, the biggest position of recruiting deficiency in the Kirk Ferentz era has been wide receiver.  Why is this?  Why does Iowa recruit players to play receiver that didn't play that position in high school?  Is this a good thing?


Clinton Solomon, Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and Paul Chaney played quarterback in high school.  Andy Brodell was a running back for Ankeny.  Ed Hinkel played quarterback as a senior in high school, but he had some experience at receiver in his early years.


We all loved Ramon Ochoa in 2003, and Iowa had several injuries at the position that year, but he led the Hawkeyes in receptions (34) and touchdowns (6) in that season. He was a great next man in, but it shows some weakness at the position.


Dominique Douglas let the program down this year with poor off field decisions, and Brodell suffered a season ending injury in game four, leaving Iowa with several freshmen and one sophomore to carry the load.


With the exception of DJK, Iowa's receiving corps is not physically imposing.  Western Michigan appeared to have the three or four of the best playmakers on the field on Saturday, and they were a 3-7 MAC team coming into the game. 


Again, this was a position that was hammered by adversity this year, but is it really a good idea to throw fade routes to a 5-foot-9, 165 pound quarterback turned receiver, even if that is the only option you have at the position? 


I would suspect that Iowa's offensive philosophy makes it challenging to recruit at this position as well.


That being said, this is still an area that has to improve.


Another question that has to be asked is as follows; even though they were young collectively this year, how can you explain the players still missing hot reads in their 12th game?  Iowa's third play from scrimmage on Saturday was a glaring example of this.


WMU brings the blitz, Jake Christensen looks to his right at DJK, who happened to be the wide out on that side on that play, the side where the blitz is coming from.  A receiver's first read has to be the blitzers.  In this instance, DJK never looked at the middle of the field; he immediately took an outside release to run his route the play called for.  The result of the play was a sack, and Iowa went three and out. Kirk Ferentz had an animated conversation with DJK on the sideline after that play.  While I don't know what the conversation was about, I suspect it was a missed hot read after reviewing tape of the play, watching Christensen's look to DJK's side in the face of the blitz, and watching DJK run upfield with his route with not so much a look at the middle of the field.


This isn't a rant on DJK, who is Iowa's best playmaker and who shows signs of being a star.  It's just a Game 12 example of how this was a huge factor in the offense this year.  This was a problem with Colin Sandeman in the first two games.  Glen Mason made mention of that during the Syracuse game from his broadcast booth position.  It's a way to make teams pay for blitzing you, but if you don't show an ability to pick it up and execute, it's noticed.  If I notice it, I guarantee you that defensive coordinators notice it.  That means they don't face much risk in blitzing, which is why you saw a ton of blitzes against Iowa this year.


Iowa's route running left a lot to be desired this year as well.  Like the rest of the offense, this was an inconsistent area.  There were times when the receivers ran great routes.  There were times when they didn't.  There where times when they ran the wrong routes.


All of these factors fall into the coaching department, whether it's development, evaluation, or teaching.  I have tended to be a coaching advocate in my time with the website or on the radio.  If the proper things are being taught and the messages are not being received and executed, then that's on the players, but it's also on the coaches in the recruiting evaluation department, or putting 5-9 inch receivers that are not even a buck-seventy out in fade routes that require physical attributes that most 5-9, 165-pound receivers can't pull off.  That's a coach's decision to put them there, while at the same time acknowledging that there were times this year that Iowa had no other healthy options.


Still, this personnel group has not been an area of strength for Iowa.  There appears to be a good collection of raw talent at the position.  Iowa has to refine it this off-season.

Question:  While the play of the quarterback is most certainly affected by the first two categories we have discussed, when he does have time, you expect him to make the throws.  There wasn't enough of that year from Jake Christensen.  There were times where some folks, and some commentators, wondered if taking a series off might not have done him some good.  But from all accounts, including those of Kirk Ferentz, the drop off between Jake and the #2 was significant, too significant for the #2 to get any meaningful reps this year. Why is that?  Why was Jake erratic at times, when he did have the time to make the throws?


Jake Christensen faced a lot of challenging situations this year, on the field and in the interview room.  He stated numerous times that he knew he had to get better in some areas, and that is the truth.  On Saturday, there were instances where he had good protection, and yet missed his intended targets.  Sometimes by a little, sometimes by a lot.  That game was a snapshot of the 2007 season. 


While it's not hard to understand being a bit gun shy or scattershot in a pocket where you have been hit more times than any other non-option quarterback in America, there were enough instances where the protection was there and Jake either missed his receivers, didn't see them, didn't tuck it and run or didn't throw the ball away.  A good portion of that is on Jake's shoulders.


Iowa doesn't have a designated quarterbacks coach, and Drew Tate struggled with mechanics last year.  His father picked up some inconsistencies in his throwing motion, and suggested the corrections to Drew, and that helped him.  This was according to Drew.  Iowa has a defensive line coach, an offensive line coach, a running backs coach, a linebackers coach, a tight ends coach and a defensive backs coach.  Ken O'Keefe is probably the ‘quarterback' coach, but he is an offensive coordinator.  That position demands a lot of time and attention.  Perhaps this is an area that Iowa can look for help in.  If it has $2.84 million to pay the head coach, then it could probably afford point-one million to pay a QB coach.  Heck, Ferentz might be willing to write the check himself.  What's a point-million dollars amongst friends, anyway?


 A question as to why there is such a gap between the 1 and the 2, and why there was no junior or senior QB in the program is something else that comes into the coaching column in the way of evaluation and recruitment.  Eric McCollom would have been in the system, but he was moved to WR early in his career, burning his redshirt, because of injuries at that position.  He later transferred.  It was probably tough to recruit a QB after Tate's sophomore year and with a US Army All American in the bullpen.  But what about the development of Arvell Nelson and Rick Stanzi?  I know they are redshirt freshmen, and that has to be acknowledged.  But to be that far behind Jake, to not even have the confidence of the coaching staff to play one series in a game, what can we attribute that to?  


Not all redshirt freshman are alike, but Christensen led Iowa to its sixth and final win of the 2006 season as a redshirt freshman, and he replaced Tate against Minnesota after Drew was yanked for a series.


Jake has areas to improve in.  He has to be more consistent, because he can make a perfect throw followed by a ball over the head or behind an intended receiver with adequate to decent protection.  Was he playing a bit shell shocked this year?  At times, that was probably the case.  But over a 12 game season, there were enough examples of areas he has to get more consistent in. 


Every position on the team, every single position, will be open for playing time, for a starting role.  I don't know that I can ever remember that being the case.  Some players have a better chance or earning jobs than others, but they will have to earn them, all across the board.


Christensen seems most comfortable in a no-huddle environment.  A significant percentage of Iowa's touchdowns this year came out of no-huddle situations.  That isn't surprising, because in high school, Jake was operating out of the shotgun a good majority of the time, in no huddle, empty backfield or three by one formations.  It was the same in high school for Drew Tate.  Does Iowa look to play to his strengths, or do they try to make him fit into their philosophy?  If the choice is the latter, then why do you recruit a player to do that?  Are Nelson, Stanzi or Marvin McNutt players that are better suited for the philosophy you want to employ?  If they are no where near being ready next year, why is that the case?


Is Iowa's offensive philosophy too predictable, and does it match up with the talents and strengths of its personnel?  I have wondered aloud about this for the past two years.  Kirk Ferentz has said time and again that it's more about execution, or lack of execution, and not about their offensive philosophy.


But when you are recruiting players to play receiver that didn't play the position in high school, when you recruit a quarterback who didn't flourish under play action and I-Formation environments, yet that is the style of play you want him to play in college, are those areas of concern?  Do those areas need to be evaluated along with everything else?


One final point here:  Iowa's national total offensive ranking (yards per game) has been 92nd or worse in five of the nine Kirk Ferentz era years, which is the majority of the time. 


1999:  97th  (1 win)

2000:  102nd (3 wins)

2001:  45th (7 wins)

2002:  13th (11 wins)

2003:  92nd (10 wins)

2004:  101st (10 wins)

2005:  22nd (7 wins)

2006:  27tth (6 wins)

2007:  109th (6 wins)


This puts an amazing amount of pressure on the defense and special teams to have zero mistakes, to execute at a near perfect rate, for Iowa to win games.  2003 and 2004 were statistical anomalies in the win column that came about due to all American caliber defense and special teams.  And when Iowa doesn't have that, and when its offense struggles, the results are predictable. 


One could say this with a straight face; Iowa overachieved in 2003 and 2004 in the win column, as it overcame some significant offensive deficiencies.  Some folks are wondering if the last three seasons are the aberrations.  Perhaps 2003 and 2004 were aberrations?


The truth of the matter is that the majority of the Kirk Ferentz/Ken O'Keefe years have seen Iowa have a national yards per game ranking of 92nd or worse.  Is that acceptable?  Is that what they are looking for?  If it's not, wouldn't you seriously look at what the issues are and try to fix them?


We are in a different era of college football.  It's an area where teams are scoring more points, even against the best defenses.  You are going to have to put up 28 points per game on the average to contend for titles, and even then you are going to need a very good defense and consistent play from special teams.  28 points per game is not a lot anymore; it's actually below average.


Lloyd Carr said as much in his retirement press conference on Monday; times have changed, and he just didn't want to change with them, even at Michigan.  The Wolverines had the school's all time leading passer, running back and best offensive lineman, and two receivers that will play on Sundays.  They ranked 70th in the nation in scoring offense, at just over 27 points per game.


That's almost four touchdowns a game, and that was good enough to be ranked 70th in the nation, 10 slots below just being average.  They were ninth in the Big Ten in scoring offense, and 10th in the Big Ten in total offense.


If there is another team in the Big Ten that Iowa resembles schematically, on both offense and defense, it's Michigan.  And Michigan has much better talent on its team than Iowa.  Iowa averaged 18.5 points per game, and averaged 2.3 touchdowns per game.


Times are changing, but Iowa isn't.


Question:  Since Iowa wants to attain balance, why was the running game abandoned so many times this season?  If the play of the QB was a concern in the consistency department, why was so much put on his shoulders?


Albert Young not getting 25 to 30 carries against Indiana and Western Michigan will be something that haunts me for a long time.  Both teams showed Iowa a lot of six-man fronts.  I know that Iowa got into a 21-0 hole against Indiana, and a 19-0 hole against Western Michigan.  But Iowa scored right before the half in both of those games, making the deficit 14 and 13 points at the break.  Neither of those programs had much of a defense, so I am not going to buy into the ‘we had to throw it because we got down early' explanation. 


Iowa was in a 14-point hole at the half against Michigan State, and had only run the ball 13 times.  In the second half, down 14 points to start with, Iowa ran the ball 31 times for 168 yards.  They closed it to a one-touchdown deficit with 10:07 to go in the game.  This week, they closed the gap to a six-point lead with 8:56 to go in the third quarter.  Iowa ran the ball 14 times in the first half and 18 times in the second half.  12 of the 32 rushing attempts on the day were attributed to Jake Christensen, and Iowa did not call one quarterback draw or one play designed for Jake to run.  Those were either sacks, which are called pass plays, or plays that Jake tucked the ball and ran, which were called pass plays. 


So against a team with a shaky run defense, at home, and with a passing game that has been erratic all season long for a lot of reasons, Iowa basically calls 18 running plays?  Does anyone else wonder why this was the case? 


I need to admit off hand, that I am not an expert in the finer points of what defenses were doing in those games, what things the Iowa staff felt it could exploit by what it saw from their opponents.  Criticizing play calling is the easiest thing for folks to do, and we don't always get it right.


But goodness, there were times this year where it looked as though Iowa left a lot of rushing attempts on the shelf.  That is magnified when the passing game was having some struggles.


One final thought here.  Iowa's running game was decimated by injuries in 2004.  At one point in time, Sam Brownlee was it as far as running backs went.  Iowa threw the ball a lot that year, and made a commitment to the passing game, because that is all it had left. 


Drew Tate attempted 375 passes that year, one of the highest single season attempt numbers in Iowa history.  That was understandable. Iowa's running backs carried the ball 300 times that season.


This year, when the strength of the team was its two senior running backs, Jake Christensen attempted 370 passes.  Running backs carried the ball 324 times this year, just 24 more than in 2004.  That just doesn't make a lot of sense.


Question:  Why has Iowa's Kickoff Return unit been so poor for the last three or four years?


Here is Iowa's kickoff return ranking in recent years:


2007:  86th

2006:  105th

2005:  115th

2004:  95th


We spoke above at how Iowa has to have special teams contributing at high levels for this football program to succeed.  This is an area that has been in disarray for four seasons in a row.  There are a lot of factors that go into this unit.  You have to have the right blockers, the right schemes, the right personnel returning the kicks, etc.


That being said, I don't think it takes a degree in pigskin to know that this has been an area of weakness for Iowa in recent years.


These are just a few football related questions that come to mind.  One for the defense might be how we hear so many opposing coaches and players talk about how Iowa is easy to prepare for, because they basically do the same things the majority of the time.  But Iowa's defenses have been pretty darn consistent during the Ferentz era since about 2001, so it's hard to be too critical.


Another question might be ‘why did it take a butt chewing at halftime on several occasions for this team to play with fire and intensity in all phases?'  This isn't a sign of a team that is mentally prepared to take the field on Saturday's.  And why has Iowa State beaten Iowa seven times in ten tries?  Why do they appear to be the team that is more mentally prepared, more full of energy, in this game?


Now let's turn our attention to more troubling issues, the off the field incidents of this year, in addition to some on-field incidents.


Question:  Why were there so many off the field incidents this year?  Character used to show up in the win column for Iowa.  This year, it showed up in the loss column.


I don't know the answer to that one.  On one hand, coaches cannot be nannies.  There are too many kids on a football team, and coaches cannot hold their hands 24-7. But the coaches are the ones that bring the kids to campus. 


If the coaches would have suspected even the slightest possibility that Dominique Douglas and Anthony Bowman would have done what they are accused of doing, they wouldn't have brought them to Iowa.  If they would have known that Dana Brown would be charged with 5th degree theft and assaulting a woman, they wouldn't have brought him here.  If they could have predicted the three or four DUI's that Iowa players have had since April, they would have stepped in to do something.  If they could have predicted that three players being questioned in connection to a sexual assault, they would have done something in advance.


That being said, those things, and others, either have happened, have been alleged to have happened, or may be alleged to have happened, this calendar year.


In pro football, coaches don't always get to decide on who is on their team.  In college, they do.  In college, nearly everything, good or bad, goes to coaching.  Whether or not that is fair, it's the reality of the situation.


I greatly admire and respect Kirk Ferentz.  I think he is the perfect embodiment of what Iowa fans stand for and believe in, as their head coach.  That's why it's hard for me to write a lot of what I have written today, because I cannot ignore the fact that he is the man in charge of everything that has to do with the football program.  Whom he hires to run his offense, to recruit players to play certain positions, to teach certain positions, etc. 


And there are some issues in some of those areas.  The off the field issues are included in that snap shot.


So are the on field anomalies we have seen this year, such as Trey Stross' spiking of a football and the sideline run in between he and tight ends coach Eric Johnson.  That was ugly, and it was not reminiscent of Iowa football we have come to know and love under Ferentz.


As Rob Howe pointed out in his Sunday column, DJK's running through the end zone and to the stands on one interception on Saturday was also another aspect not becoming of the Iowa football program we have seen, and Ferentz was none too pleased about that.  Ferentz let Drew Tate get away with some things on the field and in front of the fans that had to have an impact on team chemistry in recent years.  If that is true, then one could say it could have a lingering affect afterwards.  People see how other people behave, and if they get away with it, they might wonder what the rules are.


Over the last two seasons, there have been four different games where people have wondered afterwards if they were not the worst loss of the Ferentz era; 2006 Indiana, 2006 Northwestern, 2007 Indiana and 2007 Western Michigan.  That's not a good trend.

Kirk Ferentz will meet with the media in the next 10 days or so, whether or not it's for a bowl game or just an end of the year address.


He does this each November, and it's sort of a ‘state of the program' address.  Last year, he told us how Iowa was going to make a return to the way things were in the early years, an attempt to scrub out the ‘fat cat' mentality and other problems in his program.


It will be interesting to see what he has to say this year, because some of those elements appear to still be in the mix.


Perhaps what he said last year was not a one-year fix; perhaps some of the problems were going to take a few years to work through.


That is possible.  It's also likely that every aspect of a program gets overanalyzed by folks like me, and the fans, when things are not going great. 


At the end of last year, and just before this year began, I wrote that the 2007 season was going to be a crossroads year for the program.  That we needed to see a return to a certain brand of Iowa football, even if that didn't add up to a 10 win season.


There were times this year when we saw that, certainly on the defensive side.  But rare was the time when we saw a consistent offensive attack.  Rare was the time when we saw consistent special teams play.  Rare was the time when we saw an overall team effort like that of Hawkeye glory years gone by.


The offense was made up of a lot of young parts, so some level of inconsistency is to be expected.  But should we have expected the team to look so out of kilter in game 12 as it did in game one?  Is that something that should have been expected?  I don't think so.


The defense was torched by a low level MAC team that had just three wins coming into the game; is that something we should have seen coming?  I just don't think so.


All but three members of the offensive two deep return for next year.  Both kicking specialists return.  Iowa has a solid defensive line on paper going into next year, and some safeties with experience.  Bradley Fletcher saw some time at corner and shows promise, and Jordan Bernstine got a chance to play in nickel looks this year.  Jacody Coleman showed flashes at linebacker.


The schedule doesn't including Michigan or Ohio State, but road trips to Indiana, Illinois and Michigan State are hardly givens.  Penn State, Wisconsin and Purdue come to Kinnick, but the factor of home field invincibility is gone from the program.


This is going to be an incredibly long off season for the Iowa fans, or anyone associated with Iowa football.  Iowa is nine months away from kicking off the 2008 football season, and it has as many questions facing it this off-season as it has had since after the 1999 season, Ferentz's first year at Iowa.


Can Iowa get back to competing for Big Ten titles with just keeping with the status quo?  I don't think so, because the rest of the league is not doing that.


What will Iowa do to keep up with its league brethren?


There are a lot of questions, and I don't have the answers.  I hope that Kirk Ferentz does.

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