EAST LANSING, Mich. — Kirk Ferentz can make 2008 seem like last week in Iowa football years.
Ferentz, the dean of college football coaches, recalled with clarity how his Hawkeyes left Michigan State with a 3-point loss nine years ago. At that point, Iowa was 3-3 that year after consecutive 6-6 regular seasons. It appeared the program was stuck on a treadmill of mediocrity.
Then it took off.
“I could go back to ’08 — and I hate to start making those comparisons because you never know how the season’s going to come out — but we came out of here 3-3, lost a tough game,” Ferentz said Saturday. “That season turned out just fine, but it was a little bit like that where we had some young players that had to gain traction. Those 3 losses were all close losses. We’ve had 2 close losses back to back.”
Then Ferentz circled back to the present. Iowa dropped a 17-10 decision to the Spartans on Saturday. The Hawkeyes fell to 3-2 overall and 0-2 in the Big Ten for the first time since that 2008 season. Iowa lost 21-19 to No. 4 Penn State last week after opening with 3 consecutive victories.
“I don’t think anybody’s ready to hit the panic button,” Ferentz said, “but we need to hit the improve button.”
There are many parallels with that squad and the present version. In 2008, Iowa lost four games by 12 points. This season, it’s 2 losses by 9 points. That squad featured the nation’s top running back in Shonn Greene. This year, the Hawkeyes have running back Akrum Wadley, who is different in style and size but a playmaker nonetheless. Both teams boast a talented-but-inconsistent sophomore quarterback.
In 2008, Ricky Stanzi was starting to find his footing as a starter. At Michigan State in his first Big Ten road start, Stanzi was 15 of 22 for 158 yards, a touchdown and an interception. Saturday, Stanley was 16-of-31 passing for 197 yards with no TD passes or interceptions. On Iowa’s first drive at Michigan State in 2008, Iowa drove to the Spartans’ 12, where Stanzi lost a fumble. Early in the second quarter, the Hawkeyes drove to the Michigan State 3, where Stanzi was intercepted. On the first drive in the second half on Saturday, the ball slipped out of Stanley’s hand at the Michigan State 5 and fell into the arms of Spartans middle linebacker Joe Bachie.
Through six games in 2008, Stanzi had 5 touchdown passes and 4 interceptions, completed 65 of 100 passes (65.0 percent) for 822 yards and the Hawkeyes were 3-3. After the game on Saturday in East Lansing, Stanley has 12 touchdowns and 1 interception. He has completed 80 of 136 passes (58.8 percent) for 1,043 yards, and Iowa is 3-2.
In Stanzi’s case, he continued to grow as a quarterback. After that Michigan State defeat, he guided Iowa to a 6-1 record the rest of the way. The Hawkeyes won 28 games over his three seasons, including all three bowl games.
What does the future hold for this Iowa team and Stanley? Nobody knows that answer yet. The week after the Michigan State loss in 2008, Iowa pounded last-place Indiana 45-9. This week, the Hawkeyes face struggling Illinois.
While there are other similarities between 2008 and 2017 such as stout defensive play, there are differences. Running the football never was an issue for the 2008 Hawkeyes. Greene ran for more than 100 yards in every game that year and won the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s best running back. Iowa’s current running game — even with the talented Wadley — is derailed. For the second straight game, Iowa failed to reach 100 yards. The 2008 offensive line grew to become one of the nation’s best. This version started as one of the nation’s best and has regressed because of injuries and ineffectiveness.
Iowa rushed for 19 yards on Saturday, the lowest total in a game since 2005. The running game’s inconsistency is similar to 2016, when the Hawkeyes rushed for fewer than 100 yards four times. That squad ran for 365 yards at Purdue but only 34 against North Dakota State. Eventually, it came together in the running game. The offensive line won the Joe Moore Award as the nation’s best unit. There’s no guarantee that’s going to happen again this year, but there is a blueprint for the possibility — if the players execute individually.
“When I talk about execution, I’m talking about guys winning their 1-on-1 matchup,” Iowa offensive lineman Sean Welsh said. “For me, it’s making sure I block my guy soundly with good fundamentals. I do my job, essentially. When you have everyone doing that on our side of the ball, good things can happen. But it only takes one guy and it can go south.”
In 2008 after bludgeoning Indiana, Iowa then pounded Wisconsin 38-16 and took a week off. The Hawkeyes lost in the final seconds at talented-but-underachieving Illinois before rolling in their final four games to finish 9-4 and ranked No. 20 nationally. As for this version, there’s the potential to make strides. Iowa plays host to the Illini and then takes a week off before facing border foes Northwestern and Minnesota. But how much improvement and to what level remains unpredictable.
“You learn from your experiences,” Ferentz said. “You’ve got to keep working hard on the things that are hurting us right now, ball security, we’ve probably worked harder on ball security this year than we ever have.
“There’s no magic answers. We’ve got a six-week block here that we’re focused on. The biggest thing we need to do is close this one.”
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