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'A new me': Kirk Ferentz might look the same, but things are very different at Iowa

Kirk Ferentz says from the outside "we don't look a lot different," but the Hawkeyes -- and their coach -- have changed plenty both on and off the field. AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Kirk Ferentz has tried to change before.

Like in 2012, when, after a seven-win season that marked his worst in four years, Ferentz -- in search of a spark with new coordinators -- lost early to Iowa State and Central Michigan. The Hawkeyes then slithered to six straight October and November defeats and finished 4-8.

Change rarely goes down with ease. Until this year, it's been especially hard to digest at Iowa, where the 60-year-old-coach with the big contract and tenure that equals the second-longest in the Football Bowl Subdivision talks about his 1-10 debut season of 1999 with strange fondness.

Iowa, 4-0 for its Big Ten opener Saturday at No. 19 Wisconsin (noon ET, ESPN), lost its final three games of 2014 in ugly fashion. Ferentz entered the offseason amid a storm of discontent. Season-ticket sales dipped as the school reportedly forecasted a drop of $3 million in football-related income in this fiscal year.

Supporters felt unease at the prospect of a losing season after the Hawkeyes experienced declining win totals in four of the past five years to follow the Orange Bowl-winning, 11-2 mark of 2009.

But hidden by the cloudy exterior, Ferentz seethed at the manner in which Iowa blew a 17-point, second-half lead in the regular-season finale last year with a bevy of blunders and lost 37-34 in overtime to Nebraska.

Bad football, as Ferentz described it.

"I know a little something about Iowa," he said. "And to win here, we don't have that margin for error."

Former Iowa coaching icon and Ferentz mentor Hayden Fry wore a rose on his lapel for months after the 1982 Rose Bowl as a reminder of the Hawkeyes' miserable performance in a 28-0 loss to Washington.

"Coaches, we're all the same," Ferentz said Saturday, moments after Iowa steamrolled North Texas 62-16 to finish an unbeaten nonconference slate for the first time in six years. "We all remember the bad stuff. I remember bad plays from 35 years ago. So yeah, that [Nebraska] game stuck with us for a little bit."

With a demeanor as predictable as the political hot air that blows in this state, Ferentz set out to examine every inch of the Iowa program.

The results are encouraging. Fueled by considerable restructuring and, by Ferentz standards, a riverboat-gambler approach on the field, Iowa has stamped itself as a contender in the wide-open West Division.

"There's always that vocal minority who's only going to be happy when you're 11-0," Iowa City business owner and former Iowa place-kicker Nate Kaeding said. "But my opinion is that the core of the Iowa fan base has always been behind this program.

"And Kirk is such a great representation of this state. His character and personality, I think, are a perfect fit. He's humble, works hard, is respectful but can be tough. Those are things that we pride ourselves on as Iowans."

Winning helps, too. And Iowa's methods this month likely thrill even the biggest offseason Ferentz detractors.

Traditionally conservative to the extreme, Iowa attempted fake field goals, neither of which led to points, in its first two games. Ferentz then approved a rugby punt, a first for the coach, against Pitt on Sept. 19.

It bounced out of bounds at the 4-yard line.

"It's a new me," Ferentz said last week, humoring the local media at his weekly news conference.

Up 10-7 in the waning minutes of the second quarter against Pitt, the Hawkeyes faced a third-and-1 at the Panthers' 31. Iowa lined up in a typical two-back, double-tight end set, then exploded into a four-receiver look, shocking the crowd in Iowa City and Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi, who called timeout.

Iowa got the first down on a run by quarterback C.J. Beathard and scored before the half. In the closing minute, facing overtime, the Hawkeyes drove 31 yards to set up a game-winning, 57-yard field goal by Marshall Koehn.

Beathard, a central figure in the resurgence, got the final 8 yards on a scramble, preserving two seconds on the clock for his kicker.

"We think we should win every game," said Beathard, who ranks eighth nationally in QBR.

A win Saturday in Madison would give Iowa its first 5-0 start since 2009 and the second of Ferentz's career.

"It's fair to say we've looked extremely hard at everything we're doing," Ferentz said. "But to me, if I was watching from the outside, we don't look a lot different."

Ferentz admits that a stubborn, signature style, no matter how finely tuned the execution, can prove counterproductive if Big Ten opponents scheme to stop it.

"Sometimes," he said, "you step back and say, 'We know what we want to do, but is that the best way to do it?' That doesn't mean you change your colors every week. But you have to give your guys a realistic chance."

Defensively, Iowa has not allowed a rushing touchdown this season.

Beathard leads the Big Ten in passer-efficiency rating and ranks second with a 68.2 percent completion rate.

The Hawkeyes even win as they eat lunch. Playing on a loop in the dining area of the program's new football operations building are highlights from Iowa victories of the past 15 years.

"We had more confidence in us than anybody else did on the outside," said Beathard, the multifaceted junior placed atop the depth chart in January after Iowa lost 45-28 to Tennessee in the TaxSlayer Bowl.

"You can't listen to the outside, because they obviously don't know much. When they're telling you how bad you're going to be, you've got to brush that aside. But it also can fuel you and give you some anger, wanting to win."

Beathard's promotion prompted the June transfer to Michigan of two-year starting QB Jake Rudock. Since the offseason, the new starter has inspired the willingness of coaches to change by earning trust with his diligent work.

In an August practice, for instance, Beathard checked into a play that the Hawkeyes had not yet installed. Yes, he'd been studying.

Additionally, Iowa embraced change with its daily routine. Starting a week before the opener, the Hawkeyes moved to morning practices. According to strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle, who has been with Ferentz since his 1999 arrival at Iowa, the new schedule takes advantage of players' most efficient hours. Additionally, Iowa shuts down practice every Thursday of a game week.

So from late morning on Wednesday until kickoff on Saturday, the Hawkeyes work at football only during a quick Friday-morning walk-through.

"To me, that's a huge thing," said Kaeding, a former two-time Pro Bowl kicker with the Chargers. "You know these football coaches; they freak out if the steak's on the wrong side of the potatoes."

Of the Thursday shakeup, Ferentz said, at first, "it was like walking on the moon -- a weird feeling."

In fact, the coach said he still wonders whether that decision may "blow up in our face" later this fall.

"If it does," he said, "that's how you learn."

The idea? Give the Hawkeyes two distinct periods of recovery. Iowa used GPS-tracking and recovery-monitoring technology to reach the decisions on practice changes.

"Kirk is very progressive and very open and wants information," Doyle said. "Anybody who's good in their field evolves over time. The core principles are still there. For a Kirk Ferentz-run football team, it's always been our goal to be tough, smart and physical and willing to go to work every day.

"But the thing that's most important to him is how you play the game. And when he talks about bad football, that's something that Kirk Ferentz doesn't accept. Kirk Ferentz is going to do everything he can to change that."