Analysis: Iowa can't get running game in gear on road, and the result has been predictable
MADISON, Wis. — Iowa can’t win on the road in the Big Ten Conference if it can’t run the football effectively.
That much is true for many teams, but it’s how the Hawkeyes are built.
So if you want to understand why the Hawkeyes are 0-3 as visitors in league play, one statistic sums it up as well as any — 1.6 yards per carry. That’s the paltry output of Iowa’s rushing game in losses at Michigan State, Northwestern and now No. 3 Wisconsin.
That means few sustained drives. That means extra pressure on the defense.
That means Badgers 38, Hawkeyes 14, which was the ugly result Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.
And it could have been much worse if Hawkeye cornerback Josh Jackson hadn’t decided to outgain the entire offense with his two pick-sixes. Those covered 95 yards. The Hawkeyes generated 66 on 50 offensive snaps.
Most of those snaps were offensive, in both senses of the word.
“You play a team like this, you’ve got to not only match their level of intensity, but you’ve got to rise it up,” Iowa running back Akrum Wadley said. “You can’t beat yourself. We beat ourselves.”
The Hawkeyes gained 25 yards on 26 rushing attempts. They went 0-for-13 on third down.
Wadley ran for 23 yards on eight carries. His longest covered nine yards. The problem? It came on a third-and-16 play. The Hawkeyes had to call one of their nine punts on the next down.
“We’re not a bad team,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “And so they made us look bad tonight. That’s a credit to them.”
Wisconsin entered play fourth in the nation against the run, allowing 87.8 yards per game. There’s a reason the Badgers are 10-0 and winners of the Big Ten West.
But Iowa’s offense continued a troubling trend in conference play. It rushed for 19 yards and put up only 10 points in losing at Michigan State. It needed 33 carries to gain 89 yards at Northwestern, again scoring only 10 points.
There were no points from Iowa’s offense Saturday, one week after relentlessly punishing Ohio State with 48 in an impressive home win.
How can this be?
“If you’re not consistent in football, this is exactly what can happen,” Iowa center James Daniels said. “If we played like this last week, the same thing would have happened.”
The Hawkeyes committed three turnovers and had five costly penalties Saturday. Ferentz also pointed to some dropped passes that hurt his team, a week after his receivers caught everything in sight.
“You can’t explain it other than we played clean football last week. We didn’t do much to hurt ourself,” Ferentz said of the discrepancy between the Ohio State output and Saturday’s. “Today, I can’t say that.”
The absence of a running game was compounded by quarterback Nate Stanley’s worst performance to date. He threw for only 41 yards, was sacked four times, fumbled twice and was intercepted once.
Iowa’s longest “drive” covered 33 yards and lasted 2 minutes, 50 seconds. It ended with Stanley’s interception, just his fifth on the season.
Hawkeyes guard Sean Welsh, the lone senior on the offensive line, said the offense kept its focus throughout a frustrating afternoon, always confident that a breakthrough was coming.
“The emphasis is always on the next series. It’s not, ‘Gosh, what’s going on right now? Oh, woe is me,’” Welsh said. “It’s not something that you can afford to let go through your thought process.”
Daniels said the inability to find success did get frustrating, and pointed to a Badger defense that was nearly flawless.
“Everybody was in their fits. Everybody was in their gaps,” Daniels said.
“Every time we got a chance to be on the field, that was a chance to get it going. But we kept on getting that third-and-8, that third-and-9.”
Iowa’s players all denied that there was an emotional letdown after last Saturday’s beatdown of a Buckeye team that was also ranked third at the time.
But it’s easy to see the Hawkeyes just aren’t the same team on the road as at home, especially on offense. There’s one chance left to rectify that — at Nebraska on Nov. 24. The Cornhuskers just yielded 409 rushing yards in a 54-21 loss at Minnesota.
So things should be looking up for Iowa. Nebraska is only technically in the same league as Wisconsin.
“Their defense was better than advertised,” Ferentz said of the Badgers. “I can’t imagine they’ve played a better game than that.”
In fact, they haven’t, at least not against a Big Ten opponent. Iowa’s 66 yards was the fewest Wisconsin has ever allowed in a conference game.
The Hawkeyes can’t keep running in place on the road, or they’re going to be the answer to a few more trivia questions like that one.