You don’t have to travel back too far in time to when Kirk Ferentz was infuriating Hawkeye fans.
In April, the results of a Public Policy Polling poll found that only 46 percent of Iowa fans approved of the job Ferentz was doing.
Now, the guy is probably going to win the Iowa Caucus.
It’s been one heck of a turnaround in Iowa City. Ferentz’s team went just 7-6 a season ago, capping a three-year stretch at 19-19 with an embarrassing loss to Tennessee in the TaxSlayer Bowl. It had fans and observers calling for his job, begging the university to pay his massive buyout on what seemed like a never-ending lifetime contract.
Then came the January decisions. Ferentz announced at a peculiar winter press conference that he’d be doing things differently moving forward. Most noticeably was a change at quarterback, with Ferentz switching gears with C.J. Beathard replacing Jake Rudock as the starter.
And the rest, as they say, is program history.
The Hawkeyes are undefeated at 12-0, the winningest season ever at Iowa. They’ll face the Michigan State Spartans in Saturday night’s Big Ten Championship Game, where a win would mean the ninth conference title in program history and a trip to the College Football Playoff to compete for a national championship.
Not a bad job by the guy they’re calling “New Kirk.”
Give the man some credit. He’s in Year 17 at the helm of this program, and changing the game plan is not the easiest thing to do for someone as entrenched as him. But Ferentz vowed to be different back in January, and different has led to the best season of Iowa football there’s ever been.
And in a time of quick-trigger coaching decisions that end with assistants getting tossed for a lack of wins — you’re seeing it right now across the country — Ferentz was different without firing a single one of his assistants.
“Sometimes it's not all about what it appears to be. It's a little deeper than that,” Ferentz said. “I think anytime you experience adversity, and if you're going to be involved in intercollegiate athletics, pro athletics, high school athletics, you're going to have that; you examine it and make the best decision. Sometimes it's just about changing a few things, making some tweaks, and then sometimes there are a lot of other circumstances involved. So you just try to size it up and do what you feel is best for you.”
Whatever different behind-the-scenes fixes Ferentz & Co. implemented, they’ve produced one heck of a better football team.
Iowa’s getting knocked for a schedule that’s not terribly strong, but that doesn't mean the Hawkeyes don’t deserve the current No. 4 spot in the College Football Playoff rankings. Iowa has one of the country’s top defenses, ranking 15th in the FBS in scoring defense, allowing just 18.7 points per game.
Iowa does an awesome job stopping the run, allowing just 110 yards on the ground per game (sixth in the country) and boast the nation’s interceptions leader in Desmond King, this week named the Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year.
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Beathard has been terrific, not necessarily lighting up the stat sheet but throwing for 2,354 yards and 14 touchdowns to just three interceptions. He’s gone over 200 yards passing in eight of the Hawkeyes’ 12 wins and had four multi-touchdown games.
Beathard’s been complemented by a terrific rushing attack that seems to flourish no matter who’s toting the ball. Jordan Canzeri has had five 100-yard games, including a 256-yard day against Illinois and a four-touchdown afternoon against North Texas. LeShun Daniels has had a pair of 100-yard games, including a 195-yard, three-touchdown performance against Minnesota. Akrum Wadley has twice gone over 100 yards, including a mammoth 204-yard, four-touchdown outing against Northwestern.
What does “New Kirk” think the biggest on-field difference has been?
“We're doing a better job on the takeaways, and it's not like you have a drill for that. To me it's a reflection of just like everything else, we're doing little things a little bit better right now,” Ferentz said. “Could be positioning, better technique when you're tackling, breaking on the ball, anticipation, which might be film study. There's just a lot of things that go into it. When you are doing things right and really honed in, I think you've got a better chance for the takeaways, and then conversely, ball security is everybody's issue. I mean, if an offensive lineman cuts a guy loose and he knocks the crap out of a back or a quarterback, there goes the ball. Same thing on special teams. So it's not just the guy with the ball, it's a real team-shared responsibility. I think these guys have just really done a good job of tuning into the things that we're really trying to emphasize, and that's one of the biggest things we emphasize is playing clean.”
He’s right. Iowa’s plus-14 turnover margin is tied for the Big Ten lead.
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Ferentz supposedly made some noise by saying in an interview with ESPN that the Hawkeyes are playing with house money right now. And it’s true that all expectations have been exceeded. Iowa isn’t some underdog program like a team from the MAC or the Mountain West rising up for its 15 minutes fame before receding to the back of college football’s collective memory. But it’s also shocking to see the Hawkeyes sitting at 12-0 with a chance at the Playoff just because of how far they’ve come in so little time.
A new quarterback, a “New Kirk” and a slew of new program records and history-making moments have made this a surprising season to remember in Iowa.
And it can still get even better.
“In a lot of people's eyes we weren't supposed to be here right now,” Ferentz said. “I say that (house money comment) tongue in cheek because it's important to us. It's not like we're out there just winging it. We're treating this just like any other game. We're trying to put a really good plan in place. The staff has done a great job of that all season long. Our players are doing a great job of absorbing it right now.
“We're probably the team that's not supposed to be there, so what the heck, let's go cut it loose, see what happens.”