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Iowa Illinois Football

Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz walks the sideline during last year's game against Illinois in Champaign. Iowa won, 28-0. Ferentz and the Hawkeyes host the Illini at 11 a.m. Saturday (BTN). 

IOWA CITY, Iowa — There’s a great advantage to having stability at the head coaching position.

First of all, a coach must be successful to remain in place. Then when the head coach stays put, often his coordinators and assistant coaches do, too. Terminology doesn’t change. Offensive and defensive philosophies are passed on from class to class. Recruiting connections and relationships are built and refined. No one is ever completely starting over.

While Ohio State and Michigan routinely steal many of the headlines in the Big Ten Conference, Iowa quietly goes about its business. And since Kirk Ferentz took over as head coach 19 years ago, business has been very, very good.

After taking two years to gain traction and implement his system, Ferentz has put together a 134-75 record coaching the Hawkeyes. He’d taken the team to 14 bowl games in a 16-year span through last season and posted double-digit victories five times including 12-2 in 2015.

“They’re a good football team,” Illinois coach Lovie Smith said as he prepared to take his Illini (2-2, 0-1 in the Big Ten Conference) to Kinnick Stadium for the Hawkeyes' homecoming game Saturday (11 a.m., BTN). “We know what kind of football team they will be.

“They’re pretty traditional in what they will do. They have a system. We won’t see a lot of hurry-up or spread. They have a commitment to the run but they can pass the ball as well. Defensively, they are not going to do an awful lot but they believe in what they do and they do it well.”

That’s Iowa. Keep it simple but execute at a very high level.

The trouble is, Iowa’s winning formula has slipped early in this conference season. The Hawkeyes (3-2 overall) are 0-2 in league play. One loss was to Penn State, unbeaten and ranked among among the top five in the country. The other was last week at Michigan State (3-1).

Two of the foundational pieces of Iowa’s success have failed the Hawkeyes.

The running game has generated just 101 yards in 48 carries in the two Big Ten games. And after losing just two fumbles in all of 2016, Iowa has lost eight this season.

“Turnovers make the degree of difficulty that much tougher,” Ferentz said. “We have to focus on it and we’re going to work on it. Traditionally, it’s something we have been good at.

“Ironically, we have worked harder on ball security going back to the spring than we ever have. Maybe that’s where we’re screwing this up.”

Injuries have played a role.

Iowa came into the season with an experienced offensive line and two running backs, Akrum Wadley and James Butler, who each gained 1,000 yards last season.

Butler is out until later this month with an elbow injury. And the offensive line has been in a constant state of flux that began when senior tackle Ike Boettger was lost for the season with an Achilles injury.

“It’s repetition and keep working on it,” Ferentz said. “It’s about trying to develop more consistency, being able to sustain it, and part of that is we have to keep working and get our lineups settled in. We need to get the guys working together a little more cohesively.”

Without a reliable running attack, quarterback Nate Stanley has thrown for 1,043 yards and 12 touchdowns with just one interception.

Meanwhile, the Illini have promoted Jeff George Jr. to starting quarterback. But don’t be surprised to see former starter Chayce Crouch used in some kind of wildcat or short-yardage situations. And new No. 2, freshman Cam Thomas, is a speedster with a strong arm if Smith decides to burn his redshirt season.

Iowa has won eight of the last nine meetings in the series including three straight.


Sports Columnist

Sports columnist for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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