By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - Kirk Ferentz jokingly called himself a curmudgeon on his radio show on Wednesday.
He was commenting on his willingness to allow the fake field that resulted in a touchdown against Minnesota this past Saturday, while also feeding the stereotype that the 63-year old Ferentz is an ultra-conservative, stick-to-the-basics kill joy.
Ferentz also joked about the fake field goal with reporters after the game on Saturday, and again on Tuesday when asked about it during his weekly press conference.
“I was just trying to add to the stereotype,” Ferentz said Tuesday. “I've kind of been typecast I think over the last 19 years.”
It would be difficult to find a head coach who is more self-deprecating than Kirk Ferentz. He seems more comfortable poking fun at himself than accepting any type of praise.
And that is part of his appeal.
But don’t kid yourself into thinking that Ferentz has no ego, or is too stuck in his ways to change.
Ferentz used to be criticized for being too rigid, too controlling, and too old-fashioned.
But those perceptions started to change after Ferentz benched Jake Rudock at quarterback in favor of C.J. Beathard just days after the end of the 2014 season, and after Ferentz started to be more aggressive on fourth down, which seemed to coincide with the change at quarterback in 2014.
It seems that Ferentz sort of reinvented himself after the 2014 season, a transition that was called New Kirk as it started to unfold and that has led to a combined record of 32-13 since the start of the 2015 season.
New Kirk isn’t new anymore, but still is present, as we saw during last Saturday’s 48-31 victory at Minnesota.
That was probably the most aggressive play calling that I’ve seen in nearly 30 years of covering the Iowa football team. Ferentz never took his foot off the gas, and we’re talking about a coach who for years was accused of playing not to lose and being too paranoid on offense.
Of course, it helps that Ferentz’s 35-year old son is the offensive coordinator and calls the plays.
But just because Brian Ferentz is family doesn’t mean that he has the freedom to do as he pleases as a play caller.
The buck still stops with dad, and dad let loose against the Gophers.
Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley made a horrible decision by forcing the ball into traffic on a pass that was intercepted with barely 1 minute left in the second quarter and deep in Iowa territory.
The Gophers scored a touchdown two plays later and had the momentum going into halftime.
I remember thinking after the play, and with hindsight, that it was a bad call, but I also couldn’t believe that Kirk Ferentz allowed it to happen.
I mean we’re talking about a head coach who on numerous occasions has let the clock run out despite having the ball near midfield under similar circumstances.
The fact that P.J. Fleck is the Minnesota head coach might have had something to do with Iowa’s aggressive and somewhat risky approach on offense because Fleck is the anti-Ferentz, a master in self-promotion and look-at-me terminology.
It wouldn’t surprise me if Fleck’s fellow Big Ten coaches consider him the most annoying head coach in the conference, or second behind Jim Harbaugh, and enjoy putting him in his place.
But I also expect Iowa to be aggressive on offense against Indiana this Saturday in Bloomington, Ind., because Kirk Ferentz is more willing to be aggressive these days.
The goal under Kirk Ferentz is always to establish the run and be balanced on offense, but his current squad seems more comfortable and better equipped to pass than run, and Ferentz seems more willing to do whatever it takes to win.
Iowa is only averaging 3.8 yards per carry as a team, which isn’t very good.
The playing status of tight end Noah Fant and running back Ivory Kelly-Martin for Saturday’s game was uncertain when I wrote this column on Thursday, but it seems likely that Iowa will stay aggressive on offense even if they don’t play due to head injuries.
Fant’s playing time has been a hot topic this week due to some outside noise complaining about the number of snaps he is getting, or that he isn’t getting.
“I don't really have much to say about it,” Kirk Ferentz said at his weekly press conference on Tuesday. “We're trying to do things that we think are best for the team, whether it's how we sub on defense, same thing on offense, and the bottom line is as I said after the game, we've got two really good tight ends right now, and they both play really critical roles on our team, but most important thing is, and I don't know about the noise outside.”
The other tight end to whom Ferentz was referring is sophomore T.J. Hockenson, who leads Iowa with 289 receiving yards.
Ferentz was quick to dismiss the outside noise as she should have because it’s a non-story and because Fant is on course to catch 12 touchdown passes and have over 400 receiving yards this season.
Fant has 16 touchdown receptions in the last 18 games dating back to the start of last season. No other tight end in the history of the Iowa program can come close to making that claim, and that’s saying a lot.
Keeping track of snap counts is the new thing these days, and Fant isn’t getting enough according to those who have been critical of his playing time.
But I see it differently.
I think it’s a unique situation in which Iowa has two immensely talented tight ends in Fant and Hockenson, but there are times when only one can play due to the formation or play call. And if it’s a running play in which the tight end has to neutralize a defensive end, it makes more sense to use Hockenson because he is a better blocker than Fant.
Fant’s statistics would look much better if he hadn’t dropped a potential long touchdown pass in the season opener against Northern Illinois, and if Stanley hadn’t misfired on what could have been another long touchdown catch by Fant against Minnesota.
Complete those two passes and Fant likely has over 350 receiving yards and seven touchdowns in five games instead of his current totals of 196 yards and five touchdowns.
Another thing to consider is that Fant often runs long and strenuous pass routes that are more common for receivers because Iowa wants to take advantage of his unique skill set that is built around speed and quickness.
But those routes can wear on a player, and it takes being fresh and rested to run them in the first place.
This isn’t the first time that Kirk Ferentz has been accused of not using his best players enough, and each time the criticism has been silly and fueled mostly by hindsight.
Fant’s situation is different because he already has a proven track record after catching 11 touchdown passes last season.
Ferentz told reporters on Tuesday that Fant’s attitude has been great despite the outside noise.
“I can't remember anybody ever coming in and complaining about like, hey, I'm not getting the ball enough or not enough routes for me or not enough touches,” Ferentz said. “I would throw Noah in that category.”
That’s good to hear because the last thing Iowa needs if for the outside noise to become a distraction.
Kirk Ferentz has been coaching for a long time and he makes decisions based on what he thinks are best for his team.
The outside noise would make more sense if Iowa was 1-4 instead of 4-1, and if Fant wasn’t be utilized as a playmaker. But he is averaging one touchdown catch per game and the regular season is nearly half over.
There are times when it seems that Iowa almost goes out of its way to get Fant touchdowns, while also keeping him fresh to make big plays.
The situation with A.J. Epenesa on defense is similar to Fant’s situation.
Some fans feel that Epenesa should get more snaps, but he alternates at defensive end with two of the best players on the team in Parker Hesse and Anthony Nelson.
Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker also likes to keep Epenesa fresh because Epenesa specializes in pressuring the quarterback and that takes a lot of energy, much like the passing routes that Fant runs on offense.
Kirk Ferentz might be self-deprecating, but he isn't stupid or naive.
He didn't change his approach in 2014 and become more aggressive on offense and more willing to think outside of the box due to outside pressure or noise. He changed because he felt it was best for his team to change.
And that hardly seems like a curmudgeon.