Big Ten

What a turnaround it's been for 'New Kirk' and the Hawkeyes

kirk-ferentz-1203.png

What a turnaround it's been for 'New Kirk' and the Hawkeyes

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.

[MORE BIG TEN: With Big Ten title game win, Spartans could reach peak of the mountain]

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.

[MORE BIG TEN: Hawkeyes' Kirk Ferentz named Big Ten Coach of the Year]

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.

[SHOP BIG TEN: Get your Hawkeyes gear right here]

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.”

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

jeremy_larkin.jpg
USA TODAY

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

Tough news out of Evanston this morning: Northwestern announced that running back Jeremy Larkin will retire immediately after being diagnosed with cervical stenosis.

Cervical stenois is the narrowing of the spinal canal in one's neck, according to Mayo Clinic. Larkin's condition is thankfully not life-threatening, though it does prevent him from continuing to participate in the game of football. 

"Football has been a lifelong passion and it has been a process to reconcile the fact I won't be on that field again, given I've played this game since I was five years old," Larkin said.

"I'm extremely appreciative of the Northwestern sports medicine and athletic training staffs for uncovering this condition, and for my coaches and the medical staff for always putting my health first.

"I came to this University to engage at the absolute highest level on the field and in the classroom, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to continue one of those while supporting my teammates from the sideline." 

Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald called the news "heartbreaking."

"This is heartbreaking because I see every day how much Jeremy loves the game, loves his teammates, and loves to compete," Fitzgerald said in a statement. "But this is the absolute best possible outcome for him.

"The discovery of this condition allowed Jeremy and his family to make an informed decision for his long-term health and well-being. For those of us who have known Jeremy Larkin since his high school days, his future is exceptionally bright. I can't wait to see the impact he makes in our world."

Larkin is a sophomore from Cincinnati. He finishes his Northwestern career with 156 carries for 849 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns.

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

anderson.jpg
USA TODAY

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

Former University of Illinois tennis star Kevin Anderson completed a marathon upset against an all-time great on the highest stage of professional tennis.

Anderson came back from two sets down to beat Roger Federer in Wimbledon’s quarterfinals 2-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 13-11 on Wednesday morning. He will play in the semifinals of the tournament for the first time in his career.

As a native of South Africa, Anderson played three seasons with the Fighting Illini and won the NCAA doubles championship during the 2005-06 season as a sophomore. The 32-year-old was a three-time All-American in singles at Illinois.

Now, as the eighth ranked singles player on the ATP World Tour, Anderson is a force to be reckoned with at the professional level. He made it all the way to the US Open final in 2017.

The former Illini star will look to keep his recent success going when he represents Illinois in the semifinals of Wimbledon this Friday.