IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa is still a run-first football team. That won’t change.
It’s how the Hawkeyes have historically controlled games, especially heading into late autumn, when the offensive line begins to assert itself and the weather can make passing more challenging.
But that formula isn’t working for Iowa right now. The Hawkeyes are handing the ball off on 57 percent of their snaps. The result is a mere 3.7 yards per carry, nearly a full yard below what they consider efficient.
The second half of the season begins Saturday, with an 11 a.m. kickoff at Northwestern (3-3, 1-2 Big Ten Conference), a team with a deep defensive line that is allowing only 3.4 yards per carry. The challenge for Iowa’s offense (4-2, 1-2) is to get its ground game going, to start picking up four or five yards on first downs, to get back to what they call “Hawkeye football.”
“It’s a program point of emphasis. It's something we try to do a good job of and pride ourselves on,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said after his team’s bye week split the season exactly in half. “We're not where we want to be for a lot of reasons right now.”
Those reasons go beyond just the Hawkeyes being asked to carry the ball. It takes everyone in the huddle to run the football. Here’s a look at what Iowa must get right.
Center James Daniels said the Hawkeye line was surprised to learn how far below the norm the running game was.
“We do feel disappointment. Because that is on the offensive line,” Daniels said. “So it does make us realize that we need to start not only practicing better, but after we practice better we’ll start playing better, too.”
The line has been in flux for much of the season because of injuries. Only left tackle Alaric Jackson, a redshirt freshman, has started all six games at the same position. But the fivesome that started in a 45-16 win over Illinois on Oct. 7 appears to be the group that will get the call going forward. That may be a steppingstone to success.
The starters, from left, are: Jackson, guard Keegan Render, Daniels, guard Sean Welsh and true freshman Tristan Wirfs at right tackle.
“It doesn’t really matter who the five are. I feel like everybody’s capable,” said Daniels, a junior.
“There’s been moving parts ever since I’ve been here. I’m not sure if we’ve ever had stability on the offensive line. … As long as everybody knows their assignment, that’s chemistry.”
Daniels and Ferentz both take heart in what happened during the second half against the Illini. Iowa ran 17 times for 93 yards (5.5-yard average) and scored 28 points as a result.
“We just started building drives together,” Daniels said, “chipping away, four-, five-yard run, an eight-yard (run), a six-yard pass. That’s when we’re best.”
Senior Akrum Wadley is a bona fide star, with 12 100-yard rushing games in his career. He has rushed for 483 yards and four touchdowns this fall, but is averaging a rather pedestrian 4.1 yards per carry.
Ferentz said coaches are trying to limit Wadley to 18-25 touches per game (he is averaging 22) to keep him fresh. He also is a gifted receiver, second on the team with 15 grabs for 258 yards and another three touchdowns.
Wadley’s primary backup, James Butler, hasn’t played since Week 3 because of an elbow injury. He won’t be back Saturday, either.
That means freshmen Toren Young (110 yards, 4.1 per carry) and Ivory Kelly-Martin (96, 6.7, but a crucial fumble against Illinois) must become bigger parts of the gameplan.
“They both looked better than they did a week ago,” Ferentz said of his rookie backs coming out of the bye week. “They can improve a little bit more dramatically than a fifth-year guy or fourth-year guy that's played a lot. That's something we're banking on. … If our younger guys don't keep coming on and keep improving and show some benefit from the play they've had in the first half of the season, we're not going to be a real good football team. … Hopefully both those guys will be a little bit better ready now to go out and compete.”
Sophomore Nate Stanley is not a dual-threat quarterback. His longest run this season is eight yards.
But he knows how vital the rushing game is for his offense. And he also knows there are ways he can help even though he’s not the one carrying the ball.
“It’s going to be really important to be able to establish the run game on first and second down. It’s something that’s going to open the whole playbook for us,” Stanley said.
Stanley, in his first year as a starter, is increasingly being trusted to audible at the line of scrimmage, something C.J. Beathard did so expertly for Iowa the past two years. Stanley knows it’s up to him to avoid sending a running back into the teeth of the opposing defense, especially with the Hawkeyes seeing more blitzes in recent games.
“If a defense is blitzing and we’re running right into it, maybe get into a different play to make a positive play,” Stanley said.
He pointed to one instance in the Sept. 30 loss at Michigan State, a team that showed Iowa a variety of blitzes and fake blitzes.
“There’s one where we had a play called to the field and ended up running a slant away from it and picking up four or five yards,” Stanley said of his audible.
Those may seem like small moments, but they can be the difference between sustaining a drive and punting the football away.
There’s one more way Stanley can help out Wadley and company.
“Being able to have a good handoff with the running back is something that I think is overlooked a lot,” Stanley said. “Being able to give a good handoff allows for the running back to read his keys on his path that he’s taking. If there’s no problem with that, he can see something a little quicker or see something that he might not see if he has to worry about getting the handoff.”
Yes, wide receivers at Iowa earn their playing time in part by their ability to block. It was a message that senior Matt VandeBerg heard shortly after arriving from South Dakota five years ago.
“At Iowa, we’re going to run the football,” said VandeBerg, who has 15 receptions and two touchdowns this season. “So we need to be able to go in there and dig out safeties if that’s our job. Or get a linebacker, get a corner. Anytime there’s a long run, there’s usually one of us that sprung him on the outside.”
The adrenaline rush for a receiver making a block can be just as high as making a catch, VandeBerg said. Especially with a home-run threat like Wadley waiting to strike.
“When any of us are out there blocking and you see Akrum break by you, you know you did your job and you know it’s going to be a big play,” VandeBerg said. “So that kind of stuff is fun.”
It’s the kind of fun that’s been missing too often for Iowa this season. Saturday is a chance for the offense — all 11 players — to start enjoying the run game again.
IOWA (4-2, 1-2 Big Ten) at NORTHWESTERN (3-3, 1-2)
WHERE: Ryan Field, Evanston, Ill.
TIME/TV: 11 a.m., ESPN2 (announcers: Jason Benetti, Kelly Stouffer, Kris Budden)
LINE: Wildcats by 1½
WEATHER: 75 degrees with clouds giving way to afternoon sunshine; winds from south at 10-20 mph