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The Iowa running back proves affable again when interviewed by reporters. He also said Minnesota is a must-win.

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IOWA CITY — Unlike many of his Iowa football-playing peers, Akrum Wadley doesn’t come off as programmed in media interviews.

The junior running back injects refreshing candor in reporter exchanges. So it was notable Tuesday that Wadley tagged Saturday’s 11 a.m. game at Minnesota as a must-win.

That's in line with what the Hawkeye fan base is thinking.

“This is,” Wadley said. “I think every game is a must-win. But this game, with our backs against the wall, we’ve got to come out swinging.”

His teammates need that kind of late-morning fire Saturday. The Hawkeyes are 3-2, a disappointing start for a team that was ranked No. 15 nationally in the preseason.

The 38-31 loss to Northwestern staggered Iowa’s bid to repeat as the Big Ten Conference’s West Division champion. A loss against the 3-1 Gophers, and the Hawkeyes would be 0-2 against division foes with tougher games ahead — essentially kissing any title hopes good bye.

“We do need to win,” said Wadley, Iowa’s leader with seven touchdowns. “In order for us to accomplish our goals we set preseason, winning this game is a big game. Not only for our record, but one of our goals is to keep all our trophies.”

Cornerback Desmond King, another one of Iowa’s most quotable players, addressed the must-win topic, too.

“A must-win?” King said. “I feel like for our goals, for what we want in the long run? We have to win out. And that’s our goal.”

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Desmond King talks about his role in lifting up Hawkeyes and his return to a captain role.

Wadley, by the way, admitted he is still being affected by a right knee injury. He is averaging 7.0 yards on his 59 touches (51 carries, eight receptions) through five games.

“Day to day thing,” Wadley said. “Just keep doing rehab, training.”

VandeBerg wants to return

Matt VandeBerg remains Iowa's leading receiver, with 19 receptions for 284 yards, even though he suffered a season-ending broken foot during a Sept. 26 practice. At some point, someone (probably Riley McCarron) will pass him.

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Riley McCarron talks about ways the Hawkeye wide receivers can get more separation and build confidence in quarterback C.J. Beathard.

But VandeBerg will likely have another chance to be the Hawkeyes’ top pass-catcher.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz affirmed Tuesday that VandeBerg wants to return to the team in 2017. The senior from Brandon, S.D., will apply for a medical hardship waiver with the Big Ten Conference.

VandeBerg should have little resistance in getting the extra year approved. He meets all requirements for approval, as the Register reported last week, unlike Drew Ott’s case last season.

“Yeah, I think Matt would really like to come back,” Ferentz said. “I don't have official word yet, but it sounds like this one is a little bit more clear cut than the one we dealt with last year. So that would be good news certainly.”

Only 10 Hawkeyes on key play

Flynn Nagel’s 47-yard punt return early in Northwestern’s win over Iowa was probably helped by a major gaffe — there were only 10 Hawkeyes on the field at that time.

“That’s accurate,” punter Ron Coluzzi confirmed Tuesday. “Then again, if I were to put the ball where it was supposed to be with proper hang time and distance, that guy shouldn’t have returned it. I’m a fifth-year senior, and that’s a mistake I can’t make again.”

Nagel’s runback marked the first (and still only) punt-return yardage allowed by the Hawkeyes this season. And while Coluzzi was hard on himself, nobody in black and gold was aware of the mistake until it was too late — not a coach, not Coluzzi, not punt-shield captain Drake Kulick.

“It’s definitely something we all should’ve seen in the huddle before we broke out to the field,” Coluzzi said.

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Iowa punter Ron Coluzzi watched the Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard pin Northwestern on its own 1 yard line on his first career punt on a quick kick.

Why Kevin Ward is playing

In each of the last two weeks, Iowa has removed outside linebacker Ben Niemann at times to insert walk-on Kevin Ward.

Not for an injury, Niemann said Tuesday. He’s just tired.

“I think personally, me missing time because of my shoulder (after January surgery) and then missing time in camp with my hamstring,” Niemann said, “conditioning-wise, I’m not at the same level as last year.”

Iowa asks its outside linebacker to regularly help in pass coverage, so it’s not a surprise that Niemann is spending a lot of energy with his legs. The junior ranks fourth on the team with 34 tackles.

Ward is a fourth-year junior and a former defensive back. He is the younger brother of fifth-year senior lineman Ryan Ward, a scholarship player.

More hurry-up offense?

Stay tuned on that one, after Iowa experienced first-half success vs. Northwestern with a no-huddle look — which, by the way, was Ferentz’s idea.

“There's always an opportunity of that in the game plan," Beathard said. "We may or may not do that."

More than no-huddle, though, look for more quick passes from Beathard against Minnesota.

Beathard struggled out of the shotgun against Northwestern, but was 8-for-10 for 52 yards on quick-drop, under-center passing plays.

“The more of that we can get, the better off we're going to be,” Ferentz said of the quick passing game. “And that's a team thing, whether it's protection, guys not getting open fast enough, or maybe it's us not reading the right plays, right places."

Ferentz’s move to the hurry-up was popular. The decision not to go back to it in the second half was not.

“Tempo and throwing the ball short, that gives the offense a smaller job to do,” Wadley said. “It gets the ball out of C.J.’s hands so he won’t get hit that much. It’s very effective.”

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