IOWA CITY, Iowa — There’s a great advantage to having stability at the head coaching position.
First of all, a coach must be successful to remain in place. Then when the head coach stays put, often his coordinators and assistant coaches do, too. Terminology doesn’t change. Offensive and defensive philosophies are passed on from class to class. Recruiting connections and relationships are built and refined. No one is ever completely starting over.
While Ohio State and Michigan routinely steal many of the headlines in the Big Ten Conference, Iowa quietly goes about its business. And since Kirk Ferentz took over as head coach 19 years ago, business has been very, very good.
After taking two years to gain traction and implement his system, Ferentz has put together a 134-75 record coaching the Hawkeyes. He’d taken the team to 14 bowl games in a 16-year span through last season and posted double-digit victories five times, including 12-2 in 2015.
“They’re a good football team,” Illini coach Lovie Smith said as he prepared to take his team to Kinnick Stadium as the Hawkeyes celebrate their homecoming Saturday at 11 a.m. “We know what kind of football team they will be.
“They’re pretty traditional in what they will do. They have a system. We won’t see a lot of hurry-up or spread. They have a commitment to the run but they can pass the ball as well. Defensively, they are not going to do an awful lot but they believe in what they do and they do it well.”
That’s Iowa. Keep it simple but execute at a very high level.
The trouble is, Iowa’s winning formula has slipped early in this conference season. The Hawkeyes are 0-2 in league play. One loss was to Penn State, unbeaten and ranked among the top five teams in the country. The other was on the road at Michigan State, which takes a 3-1 record to Michigan tonight.
But two of the foundational pieces of Iowa’s success have failed the Hawkeyes.
The running game has generated just 101 yards in 48 carries in the two Big Ten games. And after losing just two fumbles in all of 2016, Iowa has lost eight fumbles already this season.
Ferentz said his team has addressed both areas this week.
“Turnovers make the degree of difficulty that much tougher,” Ferentz said. “We have to focus on it and we’re going to work on it. Traditionally, it’s something we have been good at.
“Ironically, we have worked harder on ball security going back to the spring than we ever have. Maybe that’s where we’re screwing this up.”
As for Iowa’s lackluster running game, injuries have played a role.
Iowa came into the season with an experienced offensive line and two running backs — Akrum Wadley and James Butler — who each gained 1,000 yards last season.
Butler is out until later this month with an elbow injury. And the offensive line has been in a constant state of shuffle that began when senior tackle Ike Boettger was lost for the season with an Achilles injury.
Ferentz is hoping the team can find its groove on the ground.
“It’s repetition and keep working on it,” he said. “It’s about trying to develop more consistency, being able to sustain it, and part of that is we have to keep working and get our lineups settled in. We need to get the guys working together a little more cohesively.”
Without a reliable running attack, quarterback Nate Stanley has revved up the passing game. He has thrown for 1,043 yards and 12 touchdowns and just one interception.
Meanwhile, the Illini are making a change at quarterback, promoting Jeff George Jr. to the starting role. But don’t be surprised to see former starter Chayce Crouch used in some kind of wildcat or short-yardage situations. And new No. 2, freshman Cam Thomas, is a speedster with a strong arm if coach Lovie Smith decides to burn his redshirt season.
Iowa has won eight of the last nine meetings in this series including three straight. The Hawkeyes blanked Illinois 28-0 last season in Champaign, a game Wes Lunt quarterbacked for the Illini.