The Ottumwa Courier

October 4, 2007

GROB: Ferentz faces big challenge

By JAMES GROB, Courier sports writer

When you’ve won two Big Ten titles and finished in the nation’s top 10 three times in five years, you’ve earned yourself a little breathing room.

Right now, Kirk Ferentz needs it.

The media geniuses at the postgame press conferences who used to lob softballs at Ferentz are starting to put a little pepper on their pitches. Ferentz’s Hawkeye football team has lost seven straight Big Ten Conference games, and with a contest at Penn State on tap for Saturday, it’s more than likely that number will grow to eight.

Diehard fans who used to look at their pocket schedules and count potential losses are now putting those same schedules under their high-powered spectacles and searching for potential wins.

Circle Saturday, Nov. 17. That’s Western Michigan at home. Iowa should win that one.

Pencil in a question mark next to Minnesota on Nov. 10. They’re the only team in the Big Ten that has looked worse than Iowa so far this year. Since the game is in Iowa City, the Hawkeyes should give the Gophers some problems.

The rest of the teams on the schedule? At this point, I wouldn’t put money on Iowa beating any of them this season.

As always, Ferentz has remained cool and collected. Winning or losing, the coach keeps an even keel.

“We’re just going to keep working hard and do what we can do,” Ferentz said. “We’d be very happy to win the game this week. But it’s going to take a lot of work.”

It’s going to take a lot of work, indeed, and perhaps some divine intervention, because this Iowa team just isn’t very good.

The Hawkeyes are last in the Big Ten in total offense, scoring offense, first downs and third-down conversions. On those rare occasions when he isn’t sacked, quarterback Jake Christensen couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat. Iowa is just 84th in the nation in passing yards per game.

Talented senior running backs Albert Young and Damian Sims get their legs churning at times, but then they seem to quickly disappear from the offense. Iowa hasn’t established a consistent ground game at all this season.

The defense was supposed to be Iowa’s saving grace, but this past Saturday, the Hawkeyes made Indiana quarterback Kellen Lewis look like a cross between Johnny Unitas and Barry Sanders as the Hoosiers took their biggest win over Iowa since 1945. Lewis finished 19 of 26 for a career-best 322 yards, and even threw a 79-yard touchdown pass to himself.

Lewis is a good quarterback, no doubt. But he isn’t that good.

The only complaint Indiana fans had about their team Saturday was the fact that they celebrated too much.

That’s right. Indiana’s football team came into Kinnick Stadium on Iowa’s homecoming and found good reason to celebrate too much.

That’s bad news for the Iowa defense.

Iowa’s kicking game, meanwhile, is a wacky slapstick comedy sketch just waiting to happen every time it takes the field. Think Three Stooges in helmets and cleats.

Worst of all, the 2007 Iowa Hawkeyes seem to have no identity. The only thing they’ve been able to do consistently this season is score a touchdown on a freak play right before halftime. Other than that, they’ve got nothing.

The Iowa football program has been down before. When Hayden Fry took over in 1979, Iowa hadn’t had a winning season since JFK was in the White House. When Ferentz took the reins from Fry in 1999, he was essentially building from scratch. Sure, Fry had left a solid infrastructure, but the cupboard was bare.

So this isn’t anywhere close to the low point for Hawkeye football. There is hope for the future, and yes, even hope for the rest of this season. This week, Iowa’s coaching staff is trying to fix the blunders from the Indiana disaster and keep the players’ minds off the losing streak — and on the Nittany Lions. And Ferentz’s teams, good and bad, have always played pretty well against Penn State.

“This is challenging. I’m not dismissing that. But I think we’re up for the challenge,” Ferentz said.

In all likelihood, Ferentz is up to the challenge. In the last five years, he’s won two Big Ten titles. His teams have finished in the top 10 in the nation three times. He’s gone to five bowl games — including four January bowl games.

Those accomplishments have earned him some breathing room.

For now, anyway.



Sports editor James Grob can be contacted at sports@ottumwacourier.com.