Kirk Ferentz spent a good portion of his life growing up in the Pittsburgh area and graduated from Upper St. Clair High School. His first head coaching job came in 1990 at Maine and, he noted, “when I was at Maine, we never could beat Villanova.”
But Ferentz has enjoyed success throughout his career as head coach at Iowa, where he is now in his 13th season. Perhaps the most head-to-head success he has enjoyed with the Hawkeyes is against Penn State, a team that he has followed since Joe Paterno took over as head coach in 1966.
In his last nine meetings against Paterno, Ferentz is 8-1, and he’ll try to add to that run when he travels to his home state Saturday with the Hawkeyes to meet the Lions at Beaver Stadium.
Iowa has won the last three games against Penn State, including the last-second 24-23 victory that dropped the Nittany Lions from the unbeaten ranks in 2008.
“They’ve got an outstanding program and we’ve had some decent teams,” Ferentz said in a conference call with Penn State writers. “It’s about as simple as that, I guess. In ’08, they had an excellent football team coming in here and we were becoming a good team.
“That year we ended up with a really good football team but I don’t think anybody saw it coming. I’m not sure I did, either. We just about played a perfect game to beat them. Everything had to go our way. I can’t tell you why that happened; it’s just one of those deals.”
The Hawkeyes posted a 24-3 victory over the Nittany Lions last year in Iowa City. The Lions had issues with clock management and communication between their coaches and then-freshman quarterback Rob Bolden. On two drives inside the Iowa 5, they managed a grand total of three points.
But Ferentz said the 2011 Hawkeyes are different than last year’s team. Former quarterback Ricky Stanzi now plays for the Kansas City Chiefs. Three of their starting defensive linemen – Adrian Clayborn, Karl Klug and Christian Ballard – also are in the NFL.
The Iowa defense hasn’t reached its past standards, ranking 73rd nationally in yards allowed (386) and 53rd in points given up (24). But the Hawkeye offense has been clicking behind junior quarterback James Vandenberg, who is second in the Big Ten in total offense and third in passing efficiency.
“When Ricky (Stanzi) graduated, James got his opportunity,” Ferentz said. “He’s not really there yet but he’s certainly doing a nice job. I don’t think any of us are surprised. He’s really a high-quality guy.”
With Vandenberg at the controls, the Hawkeyes are averaging 422 yards and 38 points.
As for facing Penn State’s two-headed quarterback, Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin, Ferentz said it is “a little bit tougher in terms of preparation.
“You just have two guys that offer a couple of different challenges,” he said. “So you try to be prepared for both. There’s really no way to know going into the game how things are going to break down and shake up.”
Having watched Penn State for as long as he has, Ferentz knows that even though players change through the years, the quality of play under Paterno has not, particularly on the defensive side.
“Even going back to the 60s, guys like Denny Onkotz, Mike Reid, Steve Smear, Jack Ham, they’ve always played great defense,” he said. “When you talk about winning in football, if you’re not playing great defense consistently, you’re not going to win consistently. I don’t know if anybody has won more consistently over the last 40 years than Penn State.”
The Hawkeyes have two prominent Philadelphia-area players on their team: senior defensive tackle Mike Daniels (Highland Regional, Blackwood, N.J.) and junior backup defensive back Greg Castillo (St. Joseph’s Prep, Mount Laurel, N.J.), the son of Eagles defensive coordinator Juan Castillo.