Why Iowa’s play calling much less predictable this season — especially on third down

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Six games into Brian Ferentz’s tenure as Iowa’s offensive coordinator has produced fan complaints that’s he’s too predictable and little has changed with the Hawkeyes offense.

Statistics provide merit to some of the aggravation, especially with Iowa’s struggles running the football. But when it comes to play calling, Ferentz is anything but predictable.

Fans howl and dismiss systems as predictable or conservative, but usually it’s a reaction to failed running plays or for ones that simply don’t work.

“I think what that just comes down to is, again, it’s the word that nobody wants to hear, but it’s execution, and I think that falls on us as coaches, starting with me,” Brian Ferentz said.

Without a vast resume, Brian Ferentz has yet to display many tendencies, unlike predecessor Greg Davis. In fact, as Iowa stands at 4-2 midway through its bye week, there’s no comparison between the two schematically or in play calling.

Iowa revamped its passing attack this season to incorporate more downfield routes between the hashmarks. It allows the quarterback to find targets in closer proximity and enables tight ends to use their bodies in heavy traffic areas. Davis’ system focused on shorter out routes.

“I think it’s more what I’m comfortable with,” Brian Ferentz said. “It’s more the background that I’ve come out of and where I’ve been. I learned from [quarterbacks coach and former Iowa OC] Ken [O’Keefe] a long time ago. That’s the background Ken has. Start with this: We try to model ourselves after a high school offense, and if you have a high school quarterback it’s a lot easier to throw balls in high school, not between the hashes because that’s like the whole field, right? But in college football between the hashes, those are certainly more manageable throws and catches.

“We’re driven by our tight ends. We can recruit tight ends. We know we can get guys in here to play tight end. Typically we have some receiving threats out of the backfield. Those guys live between the hashes. That’s the easiest place to throw them the ball. You’ve got to be able to go vertical to some extent. You need to threaten the defense down the field.”

Third-down play calling

Grouping Greg Davis (through 5 games) Brian Ferentz (through 6 games)
12 (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) 1 17
11 (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) 49 50
21 (2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR) 1 6
22 (2 RB, 2 TE, 1 WR) 6 9
23 (2 RB, 3 TE) 0 2
Total (third-down plays) 57 84

As for play calling — especially on third down — the coordinators could not be more different. Through five games in 2016, Davis’ offense faced 57 third-down situations. Seven of the eight times Iowa faced third-and-1 or third-and-2, Iowa ran the football. In all but one play, Iowa had a fullback on the field. Ten of the 14 called running plays were third-and-3 or less.

Of the 57 third-down plays, Davis called 49 from a three-wide receiver set. The other eight plays were all runs. There were just six called runs from the three-wide receiver set. The 43 called pass plays accounted for 12 sacks and a scramble.

In simpler terms, every third down in which Iowa didn’t have three wide receivers on the field, the Hawkeyes ran the football. Nearly 88 percent of the plays in a three-receiver set were called pass plays, and 28 percent of those plays ended in a sack. For defensive coordinators, that’s like predicting the weather when it’s snowing outside.

Iowa’s offensive staff saw the offseason as an opportunity to self-scout, especially in the passing game. The results show there are efforts to balance the third-down offense. Through the midpoint of the season, Iowa has run 84 third-down plays. Like in 2016, the majority of calls have come in the three-wide receiver set, but it’s way down at 60 percent. Iowa has run 17 plays in the two-tight end, one-back grouping on third down. Last season Davis called it once in the first five games.

“We try to be cognizant every week of what we don’t want to do is go out there and run the same play we ran the week before the same way we ran it, because that’s what those guys watch, just like they don’t want to line up and everybody has these exotic third-down blitzes,” Brian Ferentz said. “We’re not typically going to see the same one that they showed on tape the week before. They know we’ve studied that. So it’s kind of that cat-and-mouse game.”

Early tendencies?

It’s not like the offense hasn’t developed any tendencies, however. On third-and-1, Iowa has run the ball all seven times with a fullback blocking. On third-and-2, all four runs have had a fullback in the lineup; only one of the seven pass plays included a fullback. On third-and-3, Iowa called four passes and no play had a fullback. When facing third down and between 8 and 10 yards, Ferentz called 21 passes with 10 completions for 194 yards.

Personnel Runs Passes Total   Player grouping
12 54 41 95 (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR)
11 50 90 140 (1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE)
21 60 23 82 (2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR)
22 47 12 59 (2 RB, 2 TE, 1 WR)
13 1 0 1 (1 RB, 3 TE, 1 WR)
23 6 1 7 (2 RB, 3 TE)
Fake 213 167 380

( NOTE: Iowa officially has run 398 plays, but penalties and kneeldowns were not figured into the above numbers.)

With the team on a bye, Brian Ferentz has spent time breaking down his offense. This week, he looked into his third-down offense. Iowa doesn’t stray too far from its power football roots, but the small details determine a play’s success.  Part of his charge is to identify advantageous matchups.  

Of Iowa’s 84 third-down plays this season, running back Akrum Wadley has touched the ball 19 times. In the first five games last season, Wadley had only six touches in such situations.

“What really factors more into those decisions on third-and-2-to-10 is typically who are your best players, what’s the best way to get them the ball, and how can you best match up against what somebody else is doing,” he said.

The post Why Iowa’s play calling much less predictable this season — especially on third down appeared first on Land of 10.

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