Proponents of traditional offensive football backing tenacious defense had much about which to crow in 2012. Both SEC divisional champions, Alabama and Georgia, exemplified what was dubbed “big boy football.” Stanford was the old school exception to the Pac-12’s hurry-up rule, and the Cardinal went to Pasadena.
Alabama, Georgia and Stanford are enduring vestiges of the old way. Other programs still entrenched in this style are more indicative of “old man football” — an antiquated game simply unable to keep up with the breakneck pace the spread has popularized.
“[The hurry-up offense]‘s changed the complexion of the game,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said at last month’s Big Ten media days.
Last year, an Iowa program long known for defense and Pro Set offense struggled through a trying, 4-8 season that made Ferentz’s contract a more popular topic of conversation than anything to do with the Hawkeyes’ play.
Big Ten football long championed the “three yards in a cloud of dust” mentality, but change is evident. Northwestern is a Big Ten contender operating with an uptempo style. Reigning Legends champion Nebraska is adding emphasis on the pass to further spread the field. New Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen’s Utah State teams employed a free-flowing scheme, dependent on a play-making quarterback in much the same fashion as the Badgers’ outstanding 2011 team relied on Russell Wilson.
The face of the philosophical shift in the Big Ten (in more ways than one) is Ohio State’s Urban Meyer. He brought his offensive scheme to Columbus last season and went undefeated. Quarterback Braxton Miller is Las Vegas’ front runner for the Heisman Trophy.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Northwestern, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Ohio State are favorites in this season’s Big Ten race. These are teams built to win in the modern era, playing the modern way.
Is there still room for Iowa’s brand of smash mouth football, predicated on ball controlling offense that complements the defense, to flourish?
The Hawkeyes’ struggles in 2012 are not necessarily an indictment of the philosophy of Ferentz and his staff. As much of a target as offensive coordinator Greg Davis is for the blogging community and assorted pundits, consider the misfortune that struck Iowa City en masse.
• Mika’il McCall transferred to Southern Illinois.
• Marcus Coker transferred to Stony Brook.
• Barkley Hill suffered a torn ACL less than two weeks before the season opener.
• Damon Bullock missed half the season with injuries.
Mark Weisman, a fullback, was the team’s primary ball carrier for much of the campaign. A fullback. In the year 2012. Such a development is only slightly less shocking than a BCS conference team running the Wing-T.
Running back depth has a decidedly more favorable outlook entering 2013.
“We’re certainly further ahead than we were last year,” Ferentz said. “Last year at this time, quite frankly, we didn’t know if we had a Big Ten running back.”
Weisman and Bullock are back, and Ferentz told reporters he’s excited about the latter’s potential.
“Damon Bullock, I think when he was playing, did an excellent job,” he said. “I think he’s grown a lot in 12 months’ time, and we’re really excited to see how he performs this year.”
Add quick, change-of-pace style back Jordan Canzeri to the mix, and Iowa suddenly has options in the ground attack.
A diverse and deep backfield fits the old school MO of dominating on defense and controlling the ball on the offense. And indeed, Iowa’s defensive unit should satisfy the former condition. The Hawkeye linebackers corps is among the conference’s best, setting the foundation for a front seven capable of grinding opponents down. Such is the great equalizer for the hurry-up offense.
But ball control is a necessary ingredient in the recipe. Take Stanford and Alabama, two of the highest time-of-possession offenses in the nation last year. Georgia found itself on the opposite end of the clock, but shared another common trait with its fellow outliers of big boy football: the Bulldogs could throw the ball with Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Aaron Murray.
Three yards in a could of dust doesn’t work anymore; not even in the Big Ten. Crucial to Iowa successfully controlling the ball, thus negating its hurry-up counterparts and rebounding is having an adequate passing game to complement the ball carriers.
Ferentz named Jake Rudock his starting quarterback last week. The decision made hardly a ripple through the college football news cycle. Fortunately for him, Rudock will have an outstanding season if he continues to not make headlines.
Rudock won’t have a place in the Hawkeye offense like Miller in Ohio State’s or Taylor Martinez’s in Nebraska. Iowa will be in position to prove that an old school approach can and does still work in the changing football landscape if Rudock can be at all effective. Emulating the 2010 Ricky Stanzi may be a tall order. But 2009 Stanzi, who threw for a little over 2400 yards and 17 touchdowns was the passing punch the Hawkeyes needed to reach the Orange Bowl.