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Harty: Ground-and-pound approach has paid off for Ferentz

[ 0 ] September 17, 2013 |

Huddle or no huddle, the Iowa football team has an identity that won’t change for as long as Kirk Ferentz is the coach.

And it probably shouldn’t change, despite a growing fear that Iowa is falling behind the times on offense. There still is a place for a power rushing attack in college football.

It might not always look pretty. But when executed properly, it’s hard to stop and is relatively safe.

That was emphasized over and over and over during Saturday’s 27-21 victory at Iowa State by Mark Weisman piling up 35 rushing attempts just a week after having 30 carries against Missouri State.

Ground and pound still is Ferentz’s preferred way to win football games, especially when he has a 236-pound bruiser like Weisman so willing and able to lead the charge.

It’ll always be Ferentz’s way to win football games. And until recently, it was hard to argue with the results.

You couldn’t argue with using the ground-and-pound approach Saturday because the Cyclones had no answer for Iowa’s power running game. It was the one area that separated the two teams perhaps more than anything else.

It also could be the one area that separates Iowa from Western Michigan on Saturday, although it’s dangerous to assume anything against a directional school from Michigan.

“I just think historically, and I know there are exceptions to this, BYU comes to mind, but, historically, if you can’t run the ball pretty much at any level, at some point it’s going to catch up to you,” Ferentz said at his weekly news conference Tuesday.

Iowa crushed that theory during an improbable march to the 2004 Big Ten title, finishing 7-1 in the conference and 10-2 overall despite having an anemic rushing attack in large part because of injuries.

The 2004 squad was the exception to the rule, though. It also had an all-Big Ten quarterback and a suffocating defense to offset the lack of a rushing attack.

Ferentz has coached three other teams at Iowa that finished with double-digit victories in 2002, 2003 and 2009 and all three had one thing in common: the ability to ground and pound. The 2008 team also won nine games behind perhaps the best ground and pounder of them all, Shonn Greene.

Fred Russell, at 5 foot 8 and 185 pounds, relied more on speed and elusiveness to gain yards as Iowa’s leading rusher in 2002 and 2003. But he still fit his style into a power running game.

Ferentz also recruits more for a power running game because it’s easier for the Iowa coaches to land those kinds of prospects than the speedy skill players who are needed for a spread attack.

“It really comes down to what fits where you’re at and what you believe in and trying to be as good at that as possible,” said Ferentz, whose area of expertise is the offensive line. “Sometimes you get caught in a season like ’04 where they’re good at plan B and C. But it still goes down to the players did a great job that year of taking what we had in our hand and doing a good job with it.”

Much was written and said during the spring and summer about Iowa shifting on offense to a more up-tempo spread attack. The thinking was that last year’s passing attack was so inept under new offensive coordinator Greg Davis that changes had to be made to keep up with the how the game is played today.

And although some changes have occurred, including using no huddle, the power running game still is what Iowa does best. It might be considered simple and old-fashioned. But who cares if it works?

Ferentz’s roots are planted on the offensive line. His personality is more ground and pound than spread and fire.

With that comes a belief that even in this era of dual-threat quarterbacks, spread formations and speed galore, you still can thrive by running between the tackles 40 to 50 times per game if you have the right personnel.

It might not be as entertaining as watching a spread offense zip up and down the field. But nothing is more entertaining than winning.

Since the start of last season, Iowa has won six games, and in each case, a power rushing attack was the key to victory.

Damon Bullock has been reduced to a backup with Weisman’s rise to stardom. But Bullock has shown that he can ground and pound, too. He rushed for 150 yards on 30 carries and scored the game-winning touchdown in the closing seconds against Northern Illinois in the 2012 season opener. Not bad for your first career start.

The style of running back at Iowa might change from a Fred Russell to a Shonn Greene or a Mark Weisman, but the philosophy and the approach doesn’t change. That’s pleasing to the Iowa offensive linemen.

“It’s a lot of fun. That’s why we come here,” senior right tackle Brett Van Sloten said of the power running game. “We enjoy blocking. And whenever they call a run play, we get excited.”

Weisman grew up in the Chicago suburbs and has an older brother who attended Iowa. So he knew about Iowa’s reputation as a power running team under Ferentz.

“I used to watch them when I was younger,” Weisman said of Iowa on Tuesday. “I knew it was a physical team. That’s what the tradition was, being a physical type of team.”

Iowa’s reputation as a power running team is one of the factors that led Weisman to transfer from the Air Force Academy.

“Definitely,” he said. “Big Ten football is a lot of physical play. It’s going a little away from that now. But yeah, it’s definitely a place where I want to be.”

It’s now easy to see why.




Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football

About Pat Harty: Columnist Pat Harty has been covering the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Press-Citizen since 1991. Originally from Des Moines, he currently writes columns and covers Hawkeye men's basketball for Hawk Central. View author profile.

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