The B1G 10: Iowa's offense is broken. Will Kirk Ferentz keep looking to his son for answers?
Every Tuesday morning, Matt Hayes tackles the 10 hottest topics in the Big Ten …
1. The B1G Story
We need to have a talk about Iowa. Not about longtime beloved coach Kirk Ferentz and if or when it’s time to move on.
But about Brian Ferentz, Kirk’s son and Iowa’s beleaguered offensive coordinator.
“He’s a good football coach,” Kirk said of Brian.
And this, everyone, is the problem.
Kirk Ferentz said this after Brian’s offense scored all of 6 points last weekend in a 9-6 loss to Illinois. After Iowa failed to score a touchdown for the 2nd time this season, and now sits at 7 offensive touchdowns halfway through the season.
After the Iowa offense finished off another truly anemic performance at Illinois with 222 total yards to hold firm at last in the nation, 131st, in total offense (238.8 ypg). The Hawkeyes are also 131st in first downs, 129th in long scrimmage plays, and 122nd in 3rd-down conversion percentage.
Or every key contributor to a successful offense.
Wait, it gets better. Without Iowa’s 3 long rush plays of 21, 16 and 11 yards, the Hawkeyes had 27 carries for 4 yards against Illinois. Four yards.
Iowa’s quarterback, Spencer Petras — a 3-year starter under Brian Ferentz, but in his first season with Ferentz as the quarterbacks coach (more on that later) — has a passer rating of 103.45. The official NCAA statistics only rank the top 100 quarterbacks.
Grayson James of FIU is No. 100, with a rating 15 points higher (118.70) than Petras.
Since beginning the season 6-0 last year, Iowa is 7-6 and has failed to reach double-digit points in 6 of those games. The offense that hit new lows last year somehow got worse this season.
Yet after all that, Ferentz still has the ultimate answer: Since he elevated his son to offensive coordinator in 2017, Iowa is 54-26.
“Making a change? No, no, no. We won 10 games last year, I’m not sure if you’re aware of that,” Ferentz said. “So we’re not doing well enough right now. I think that’s fairly obvious, and we’re working on solutions.”
2. Another promotion
There was a brief moment last year when Kirk Ferentz could have at least brought some fresh ideas into the offensive staff room and given his son more options to choose.
Instead, he made things worse.
When Ken O’Keefe retired as quarterbacks coach at the end of last season, Ferentz elevated Brian to the job — even though Brian had never played (he was an offensive lineman at Iowa) or coached the position.
In a football era (high school, college, NFL) where the quarterback is everything — where high school players choose colleges based on specific quarterbacks coaches and offensive systems and coordinators — Kirk Ferentz decided his son was the best fit for the position.
Iowa tried to get a quarterback from the transfer portal and struck out. It tried to get wide receivers and other skill players for the offense. Nothing of significance.
Iowa also lost 4 receivers to the transfer portal, including dynamic wideout Charlie Jones — had 21 catches (15.4 ypc.) and 3 TDs in 2021 when Iowa couldn’t consistently get him the ball — who left for Purdue and currently has 50 catches and 7 TDs.
More damning, and more to the point: Petras has never been an elite quarterback, but his numbers have drastically dropped in his first season with Ferentz as QBs coach — including a horrific 5.8 yards per attempt.
In 4 games against Power 5 teams, Petras has 1 TD and 2 INTs, and the Hawkeyes have lost 3 of 4 games. But for 2 defensive touchdowns in a 27-10 win over Rutgers, that game could’ve been a loss, too.
“We got to play better. We have to do what we can to help our players,” Kirk Ferentz said. “It’s easy to point fingers and just call people out, and I don’t think I’ve operated that way in 23 years and don’t intend to now.”
3. Tough decisions, The Epilogue
Kirk Ferentz clearly thinks there’s more to the offensive struggles than his son having complete control over the offense and quarterbacks. And he may be right.
The offensive line has struggled (given up 18 sacks), receivers aren’t winning on the outside and if 1 of the 3 key components of the passing game — blocking, getting open and catching the ball, throwing on time with accuracy — doesn’t work, it decreases an offense’s ability to throw efficiently and move the ball.
But this is about so much more than this season. This is about where Iowa is moving forward at the most important position on the field, and with an out of date offense in a wide open era.
Iowa is averaging 2.8 yards per carry, and 5.8 yards per pass attempt. Elite high school quarterbacks are not clamoring to visit schools that can’t run the ball, can’t protect the quarterback and run an out of date offense. Transfer portal quarterbacks aren’t, either.
Since Brian Ferentz was named offensive coordinator, Iowa quarterback recruits have ranked no higher than 421st overall in the 247Sports composite. That was Petras in 2017.
The current 2023 class — the first with Brian Ferentz as quarterbacks coach — has one commitment from a quarterback: Marco Lainez III is the 558th-ranked player in the class.
Maybe Kirk Ferentz is right, and he’s not blowing up 21 years of the way he has done it because someone is questioning an offense that’s struggling.
Maybe he’ll say the same thing in 2 weeks after an ugly loss to Ohio State. Or maybe he’ll just hire a real quarterbacks coach in the offseason to teach the position and give the offense — and his son — its best chance to succeed.
4. The decision
We’re getting dangerously close to a defining decision for Ohio State star WR Jaxon Smith-Njiba.
Sit or play?
There’s a path already laid out for the decision, one that eventually became a brilliant move from former LSU star WR Ja’Marr Chase.
Smith-Njiba sustained an injury to his left hamstring in the season-opener against Notre Dame and hasn’t played since Week 2. A hamstring injury, if it’s a severe grade injury, can linger for months.
The question now: Is it more damaging for Smith-Njiba to play this season, considering the injury and its potential impact to his NFL future?
“He could sit the rest of the season, and still be the first wide receiver picked and still be top 7-10 overall,” an NFL scout told me. “He has tape. It’s obvious who and what he is, and what he will be in this league. Ideally, you don’t want to see anyone sit, but Chase sat.”
That, more than anything, has to be part of the decision for Smith-Njiba. Of course he wants to play and be part of a potential national championship run.
But at what cost? Reinjuring the hamstring would only cast doubt with NFL personnel about his health and ability to recover.
While sitting out worked for Chase, it was a completely different set of circumstances. Chase had just been part of the 2019 LSU national championship run as a sophomore, and when COVID hit, the unknown of the pandemic — and frankly, the unknown of the LSU team and offense — made it easier to sit.
He was picked 5th overall by the Cincinnati Bengals, and last year was named NFL offensive rookie of the year.
5. The Weekly 5
Five games against the spread, brought to you by our friends at FanDuel:
- Penn State (+7) at Michigan
- Minnesota (-3.5) at Illinois
- Maryland at Indiana (+10.5)
- Wisconsin at Michigan State (+6.5)
- Nebraska at Purdue (-12.5)
Last week: 1-4.
6. Your tape is your résumé
An NFL scout analyzes a draft-eligible Big Ten player. This week: Michigan OT Ryan Hayes.
“He has been up and down now for 4 seasons, but he’s putting together a nice season. I think the COVID season really impacted his development. There was so much uncertainty in the Big Ten, and that whole team never really got comfortable. Then he comes out last year and struggles at times, got better late.
“He’s a long guy (6-7, 305) with good technique. His hands need to get better. He’s solid in run block, and while strong inside, he can move to the perimeter and still consistently engage. He has gotten much better in his sets, and isn’t playing as high as he did last year. He’s coming on, no doubt.”
7. Power Up
This week’s Power Poll, and one big thing: Not-so-obvious midseason MVP.
1. Ohio State: DT Michael Hall. Buckeyes are better on D because they’re better up front. Hall has 4.5 sacks, and he clogs the middle in run defense.
2. Michigan: TE Luke Schoonmaker. A big, long, consistent target for QB JJ McCarthy. He’ll be more involved in the 2nd half of the season.
3. Penn State: LB Abdul Carter. Lions have moved the true freshman linebacker all over the front seven as a disruptive force.
4. Purdue: WR Charlie Jones. Injuries forced him into the No. 1 receiver role, and he has crushed it: 50 catches, 7 TDs.
5. Minnesota: CB Terell Smith. The super senior is playing his best in coverage, developing into an aggressive cover corner (1 INT, 1 sack, 3 PD, 1 FF).
6. Maryland: RB Antwain Littleton. He’s still learning the nuances of the position, but a redshirt freshman season has already produced 6.6 average yards per carry and 6 TDs.
7. Illinois: CB Devon Witherspoon. The Illini defense has been the most overlooked story in CFB. Witherspoon leads the nation with 11 passes defended.
8. Wisconsin: S John Torchio. Senior overachiever having his best season: 4 PDs, 2 INTs, 1 sack, 1 INT TD return.
9. Iowa: TE Sam LaPorta. That’s right, someone in the passing game. Without LaPorta (30 catches), the offense — if it’s possible — would be much worse.
10. Michigan State: CB Charles Brantley. CB Kendall Brooks gets the attention, Brantley (4 PDs, 1 INT) has had the better half-season.
11. Nebraska: RB Anthony Grant. Junior college transfer has been the most consistent option (647 yards, 5 TDs) for a struggling offense.
12. Rutgers: S Christian Izien. A physical force in the back end, 2nd-leading tackler on the team and an underrated cover safety (1.5 sacks, 4 PDs).
13. Indiana: LB Cam Jones. Classic chase-and-punish linebacker good enough to earn All-Big Ten honors despite playing on an average defense.
14. Northwestern: RB Evan Hull. Leads team in rushing (428 yards, 3 TDs) and receiving (36 catches, 1 TD), the lone bright spot in an otherwise miserable half-season.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: Why have we not heard anything on Big Ten expansion? Do you think they are done at 16? — Cheri Walton, New York City.
Not only is the Big Ten not done, it most likely moves to 20 with the addition of Stanford, Cal, Oregon and Washington. There are a number of reasons for the pause in expansion, including but not limited to: Playoff expansion, and adding a media rights partner to pay for the 4 new teams.
In a perfect world, Playoff expansion is worked out over the next couple of months and Power 5 conference commissioners agree on a format that will begin in the 2024 season (there’s a lot of green still left in that putt).
USC and UCLA join the Big Ten in 2024, and the conference would do backflips if it could find a media rights partner to pay for the 4 new schools to also join in 2024. See the symmetry: new Playoff, new 20-team Big Ten.
Two separate industry sources have told me the Big Ten is deep into talks with Amazon to join the league’s media rights group that includes Fox, CBS and NBC. The Big Ten needs Amazon to pay an estimated $320 million annually to make the 4 new teams whole ($80 million each) with the rest of the Big Ten in 2024.
But there are a few obstacles in the negotiations: Amazon doesn’t want just games at the lower end of the Big Ten food chain, and a handful of Big Ten schools (see: Indiana, Northwestern, Purdue) fear a majority of their games will be streamed with Amazon instead of played over cable and network television.
All of these things can be overcome, and the Big Ten will likely find another partner — be it Amazon, or someone else.
79.8. Michigan wants to run the ball with TB Blake Corum (who should be a Heisman Trophy candidate, by the way) to set up play-action and protect young and talented QB JJ McCarthy. Penn State is No. 5 in the nation in run defense, giving up just 79.8 yards per game (2.96 ypc).
This is a dangerous spot for Michigan, which has sputtered early in each of its past 3 games (Maryland, Iowa, Indiana). If the Wolverines start slow against this Penn State defense — which is giving up just 14.8 ppg — the game will get more difficult for McCarthy in the second half if he’s forced to make difficult throws.
10. Quote to note
Wisconsin interim coach Jim Leonhard: “Game day is game day. You put in the work, you put in the time, and you should have confidence when you step off that bus that you have the right plan, you have the right guys. You’re going to put them in position to have success.”