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Iowa changed everything it could without losing its identity. Now it’s a Playoff contender

The Hawkeyes' future looks a lot different than it did a year ago.

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A year ago this week, Iowa blew a 17-point lead to Nebraska and dropped to 7-5 once again. Soon after, Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst decided that beating lowly Iowa wasn't enough to keep head coach Bo Pelini.

"In the final analysis, I had to evaluate where Iowa was," he said.

That quote drove Iowa fans crazy, but frankly, it was correct. Those same fans showed it. The Hawkeyes' program had become stale, failing to win more than eight games in any season since 2009. The streak of sellouts disappeared, and heading into the 2015 season, Iowa saw a 10 percent drop in season tickets, with only 64 percent of fans renewing their season tickets.

This program wasn't going anywhere, and apathy had built to unprecedented levels. I experienced that firsthand a year ago, sitting in the stands in Iowa City.

Going to Iowa football isn't a thing you do these days, because people have better things to do. They have better things to do than sit in the cold in a stadium with no cell service, with benches the athletic department hasn't bothered to clear of snow and with a football team that seems content going 7-5 or 8-4.

But a year later, with a game against Nebraska on the horizon, everything has changed. Iowa is 11-0, ranked third in the national polls, and on the verge of both an undefeated regular season and a Big Ten Championship Game appearance, which could amount to a play-in game for the College Football Playoff.

This is the most energized the fan base has been in years. That was clear at the Iowa-Minnesota night game two weeks ago, and now an athletic department that couldn't sell tickets already doesn't have enough of them for the Big Ten Championship Game.

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Just watching Iowa, you might not assume much has changed. Kirk Ferentz is still the head coach, Greg Davis is still the offensive coordinator and it's still a tight end and fullback-driven offense that doesn't do anything too exciting. But things don't just change on their own.

The Hawkeyes had always claimed that their way of doing things could be successful, as it was in an eight-year stretch in the 2000s when they were ranked in the top eight of the final AP poll four times. But sometimes you have to adapt to get the same results. So that's what Iowa did.

"We weren't playing Iowa football," offensive line coach Brian Ferentz tells The Inside Read. "We weren't tough and physical. We weren't any of those things. We lost close games. We were sh---- on special teams, got the ball run up our a-- and we didn't run the ball. We just weren't us. There was a lot of disappointment and frustration. I'd go so far as to say embarrassment because that's not who we are."

Essentially, Iowa knew it sucked. "Iowa football" has the same scheme these days, but it made the smaller changes necessary to keep up on the national scene.

From the beginning of the year, Kirk Ferentz made changes. In January, the stubborn 60-year-old called an out-of-the-ordinary press conference because, "my sense is, we needed to talk." In that press conference, he announced the team would start high ceiling C.J. Beathard over the safer choice, former starter Jake Rudock, in 2015. Ferentz visited the Green Bay Packers and, strangely, Oregon — the opposite of Iowa, schematically — to learn about how other teams practice. The result was a switch to morning practices and giving the team Thursdays off before games.

Ferentz, who once joked that he might never return a punt again, took advice from former punt returner Micah Hyde, who has turned into one of the NFL's best return men for the Green Bay Packers.

On last Wednesday's WIXX show, Hyde was asked if he returned punts at Iowa.

"My junior and senior years I did it," he said, "but we had a bunch of freshmen out there. So it was fair-catch, fair-catch, fair-catch. I never really returned the ball."

"When I got here and returned a couple," Hyde said, "my coaches from back there were like ‘Why didn't you do that here?'

His reply: "Well, you guys had freshmen blocking for me. I wasn't able to do anything."

This year, Iowa has put some of its best players on punt return and subsequently jumped from 106th to 23rd nationally in punt return average.

Iowa changed everything it could while still being Iowa schematically. That's a hard thing to do in a sport with such outsized egos, and it's especially hard for a veteran coach. But it was necessary, as Brian Ferentz recently said on an Iowa podcast.

What we were doing wasn't working, and that's a really hard thing to be honest with yourself about, I believe.

When you get beat like that, I think you really have to be honest with yourself. And what it was, it was symptomatic of bigger problems. That's what we felt like. And when you look at the season and look at the games we lost and the ways we lost them, if you're not honest with yourself, then you have no chance to improve. So whatever we were doing wasn't working.

Now, the Hawkeyes are reaping the rewards of that decision. Just a year after everything looked like doom and gloom, the fans are coming back to Iowa City (and Lincoln and Indianapolis), and the program is riding high as it basks in school history.


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