What makes Iowa's 25-points-or-less defensive streak special -- but also worrisome
Iowa comes into 2021 on a roll — and it’s not just that 6-game winning streak.
For the uninitiated, the Hawkeyes have limited their past 22 opponents to 25 points or fewer.
Only one problem: They’ve lost 5 of those games.
So is this celebrated streak a symbol of defensive dominance — or dated design? Is Iowa just the football version of Wisconsin basketball?
This run, which began at the start of 2019 — a 27-22 New Year’s Day Outback Bowl victory over Mississippi State — is the longest in college football. Marshall is next at 8 — and the Herd are sitting on a 3-game skid, more thud than Thundering.
So just how important is the streak? After all, the last time Iowa gave up more than 25, it won (31-28 vs. Nebraska in 2018).
Iowa football isn’t supposed to be pretty, not like the truly elite teams in college football are. New schemes and strategies come and go while Kirk Ferentz and his Hawkeyes just consistently go about their business of run-stopping defense and run-first offense — as they’ve done for almost a quarter of a century now. And they’re winning at a decent — but rarely stellar — clip.
The elite — for this exercise, we’ll choose Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State — averaged 44.4 points per game over the past 3 seasons while the Hawks sit a full 15 points behind at 29.4 over the same span.
Safe to say, those Playoff frequent flyers aren’t scared of 26 points, but Iowa kinda has to be. Iowa football is supposed to be “sticky.”
That’s how I’ve described Iowa’s style since Chauncey Golston coined the phrase to the media after a 20-0 win at Northwestern in 2019 in the rain that fans and some media thought should have been much more lopsided — perhaps doubly so — if only Ferentz had put his foot on the gas.
But that’s not his way. …
“That’s Iowa football,” Gholston said. “We know games are gonna be sticky and we try to keep ’em sticky, because we’ve been trained for that.”
That same day, when asked if there are wins he looks back on that didn’t earn any style points, but got the job done, Ferentz didn’t hesitate: “Yeah, like most of ’em.”
But let’s reverse it for a second and look at the losses. One flashy play could have been the difference in any number of them, because 8 of Iowa’s 9 losses over the past 3 seasons have been by just 1 score.
The lone exception? An 11-point Wisconsin win at Kinnick in which the Badgers scored 2 touchdowns in the last 57 seconds to turn a 17-14 deficit into a 28-17 win. So that’s a case where the game really was closer than the score indicated. (No, really!)
Last year, the Hawkeyes lost 2 games by a total of 5 points — the first 2. In 2019, it was 3 losses by 14 total.
There’s historical precedent at Iowa for those types of seasons to be seeds of success, not just one-off missed opportunities. There’s an argument to be made that last year’s squad could have followed in the footsteps of the 2004 and 2009 teams if it had been given a game against Indiana (and won) instead of Michigan (which got canceled anyway) in the Big Ten bonus round. (Sorry, Champions Week.)
“If last year was normal, I think you would’ve seen them get hotter and hotter down the stretch,” one anonymous coach told Athlon.
“What could have been” in that scenario is a better bowl game (ideally one that wasn’t canceled) and a chance to leave a memorable mark beyond the unprecedented ones 2020 already left.
The 2003 team lost 3 games by an average of 10 points.
The 2008 team lost 4 games by an average of 3 points.
What followed in those postseasons was the high point of the Ferentz era (an Orange Bowl win) and the highlight of the Ferentz era (Tate to Holloway against LSU to win the Capital One Bowl). Imagine if that 2004 team hadn’t lost 2 games by a combined 74-24, but I digress.
2020 could have been that type of year, but COVID cancellations are giving the Hawkeyes a do-over for 2021. And things are trending up.
You see, there’s more to the story, an element that suggests it isn’t just the defensive foundation winning games for Iowa. The Hawkeyes have actually been pulling away from their opponents in recent years.
Last year Iowa ranked 10th in scoring margin — the 3rd consecutive season the team has ranked among the top 21. That’s significantly higher than the 3 years prior — a range that includes the 2015 Hawkeyes that started 12-0.
Since being stampeded by Stanford and Christian McCaffrey, Iowa has improved it’s scoring margin from +6.8 in 2016 to +15.8 last year.
Kirk Ferentz is old school. The type of coach that ruffles feathers (in a good way) by sitting in a nest on a Big Ten Network promo and whose quotes end up on a t-shirt every time he wanders off script (“Take Floyd, leave the time outs”) and sometimes even when he doesn’t (“That’s football”).
Every year, Twitter is filled with “New Kirk” references, and — just like “Texas is back” — it’s hard to say how many are facetious.
But there are signs that the reins have loosened — after all, his son is the offensive coordinator and we all have trouble saying “no” to our kids.
2018 appeared to be an anomaly — and a missed opportunity — by averaging 30.6 points and somehow underutilizing 2 first-round tight ends.
But 2020 was back to 31.8 points per game against nothing but Big Ten teams.
So maybe the tide is turning for the Hawkeyes just like the Tide turned from a team that won a national championship 21-0 to one that won 42-14, 45-40 and 52-24.
At Iowa’s level, it just takes a little longer to adapt.
So what’s the verdict? The dominant defense and reliance on running backs isn’t dated design — as seemingly eternal meme lord Anakin Skywalker said — “if it works.”
“Works” is a relative term among the 130 FBS teams. If you’re looking for national championships, then Iowa’s system doesn’t work for you.
Many don’t remember a time when the Hawkeyes finished No. 8 in the rankings 3 years straight. It was under Ferentz. That window of being a perennial top 10 team has closed, but they should be a top 25 team with aspirations for more that pay off every 5 seasons or so.
2021 needs to be that year. Iowa is overdue to win the B1G West at the very least. In most years, a single game — surely, a sticky one — has been the difference between Iowa going to Indianapolis or staying home.
The streak is impressive, but it isn’t everything.
Lose that streak in a shootout win as the No. 17 team in the country against Indiana’s No. 16 in Week 1, but make it to Lucas Oil Stadium for the B1G Championship Game, and no one in their right mind is going to mind.