IOWA CITY — In retrospect, Kirk Ferentz’s one-liner coming out of Saturday’s victory is brilliantly funny.
The Iowa coach knew the question was coming and he was prepared. Within about five minutes, Ferentz was asked about the emergence of the no-huddle offense with the Hawkeyes the last two weeks.
“Just trying to please the fans and the media,” Ferentz said with maybe a hint of sarcasm. “That’s simple. Simple answer there.”
Peel it back a bit after the Hawkeyes’ 45-17 victory over the University of Louisiana Monroe and a couple of truths rise. Say whatever you want about the no-huddle pace, it works. Whoever’s idea it was, step forward and collect your bonus. Also, sure, maybe the no-huddle takes Ferentz and staff out of the running back, tight end comfort zone, but it still allows the Hawkeyes (3-1) to dictate tempo.
This is why Iowa has started with the ball 130 of 153 games under Ferentz. It’s not an overtly aggressive decision like, say, a corner blitz, and you’re rolling your eyes right now, but think about it. It’s the first move on the chess board. It’s the first move to attempt to control tempo, which, with the uneasy newness of this year’s defense, can add a 12th defender to the field — the clock.
“We will keep it [the no-huddle], if it’s effective,” Ferentz said. “I’m not as hard headed as you think I am. We’re going to do whatever we can to score. That’s what it comes down to . . . if it helps us.”
It all starts with quarterback James Vandenberg. The no-huddle fits his skill set, which is accuracy first and foremost. Through four games, Vandenberg has completed 62.8 percent of his passes. Ricky Stanzi’s 2010 was the best statistical season by an Iowa QB since Brad Banks in ’02. Through four games last year and going into the Big Ten season, Vandenberg’s and Stanzi’s numbers are nearly identical.
Stanzi completed 66 of 99 for 999 yards, nine TDs and just one interception with a pass efficiency of 179.41. Vandenberg is 81 of 129 for 1,095 yards, 10 TDs and one interception with an efficiency of 158.12.
The difference between Iowa offense ’10 and offense ’11 is rushing yards. The 2010 team had 739 yards and averaged 4.6 yards a carry. This year, it’s 562 and 3.9.
Tight end production is down — 11 receptions for 153 yards and no TDs this year to 18 for 259 and 1 TD last season — but wide receiver production is up, way up. Led by Marvin McNutt, Keenan Davis and Kevonte Martin-Manley, Iowa wide receivers have 60 receptions for 895 yards and 10 TDs. Last season, it was 41 for 625 and seven TDs.
It all starts with the quarterback and the course Iowa has steered with Vandenberg. The dropoffs in the running game and tight ends have been soaked up by the quarterback, wide receivers and no-huddle.
“I think it all starts with the quarterback,” Ferentz said. “Since he’s gotten here, James has seemed pretty comfortable in that mode.”
Going into August, Ferentz thought Iowa had “a guy who could throw it a little bit, but I didn’t know who was going to catch it. In the past two weeks, boy, that group is practicing better and I think they’re having fun right now.”
The catch with the no-huddle is clock, and Ferentz reminds everyone when the question is asked that it’s a double-edged sword. In order for the clock to become a defender, it has to tick.
“There are times in the game where you have to hold onto the ball a little bit, too, and keep it away from the other team,” he said. “We want to be able to do both and do what’s best for the team in that situation.”
Iowa is off this week and enters the Big Ten schedule Oct. 8 at Penn State (3-1). The Hawkeyes are 3-1, which is exactly where they were last season.
It’s Iowa — aggressive with possession, tempo — but it’s not Iowa — no-huddle and QB-wide receiver reliance over running backs and tight ends and the unease on defense.
It’s Iowa and it’s not. The Big Ten is probably as confused and interested as you are.