IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — It was a familiar spot for Iowa offensive coordinator Ken O’Keefe. The Hawkeyes were struggling to score, and many fans were blaming him.
The team had lost three straight — by a total of nine points — and they failed to score more than 20 points in any of those games. Folks began to flood message boards and call-in shows to rail against O’Keefe, whose offense averaged just 18.5 points in 2007 en route to a 6-6 finish.
Then things just started to click.
The Hawkeyes (5-3, 2-2 Big Ten) hung 45 points on a beleaguered Indiana, and last Saturday they pounded Wisconsin in a 38-16 win, scoring the most points against the Badgers in 30 years.
Behind a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate in Shonn Greene, a maturing quarterback and a line that has made major strides, Iowa is averaging 29.8 points a game this season — good for fourth in the Big Ten.
“We’ve gotten better, and certainly we’re on the track we’d like to be,” O’Keefe said. “If we can take care of the ball...and then get down to the business of executing what we’ve practiced everyday, then you’re giving yourself a chance.”
Iowa is off this weekend but will resume play next week at Illinois.
The key to Iowa’s offense has been Greene, who has developed into one of the nation’s best tailbacks. Greene has rushed for more than 100 yards in each of his first eight games, and he’s third in the nation with 144.2 yards a game.
What’s made Greene’s season all the more spectacular is how he’s done it. He’s averaging a staggering 6.5 yards per carry, and he seems to be getting stronger as the year progresses. Greene had his best game yet against the Badgers, rushing for 217 yards and four touchdowns, including three scores of 34 yards or longer.
O’Keefe described Greene as “big, strong, powerful and faster than you’d think,” and he praised his pass protection skills. That’s allowed the coaching staff to leave him on the field on clear throwing downs.
“Shonn has been the big catalyst for us,” O’Keefe said. “He’s a physical football player. Our guys up front take pride in being physical football players, and he really helps spark all that.”
The decision to give Ricky Stanzi the starting quarterback job over Jake Christensen has helped the Hawkeyes stabilize their offense. Stanzi hasn’t been spectacular, but with Greene behind him he hasn’t had to be.
Stanzi has been turnover-free in his last two games, and he’s third in the Big Ten with a pass efficiency rating of 145.3. Stanzi been aided by a much-improved offensive line, which had allowed 14 sacks after Christensen was sacked 46 times in 2007.
Iowa handed Stanzi the starting job after losing at No. 17 Pittsburgh, 21-20, on Sept. 20.
“Those are difficult decisions to make, because Jake’s killed himself for the program. He’s put the program first from day one, and he has dreams and goals for us as a team and I’m sure for himself individually,” said O’Keefe about the decision to bench Christensen. “The difference comes down to, Rick throws the ball pretty well on the run, and that’s something we need to have.”
O’Keefe has been with Iowa for 10 seasons, and he’s witnessed all the ups and downs of coach Kirk Ferentz’s tenure. Criticism is par for the course for a coordinator at a major college program like Iowa, but O’Keefe insists he doesn’t pay attention to it. He says he’s too busy getting his players ready for Saturdays to worry about what folks say about him or his offense.
“I don’t deal with that,” O’Keefe said. “You keep on trucking.”