Hawkeyes look to unleash stronger ground game, starting Saturday vs. Miami of Ohio
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa’s running backs are aware of the statistic. You don’t need to keep reminding them.
Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young know that ranking 95th among FBS teams in rushing yards per game is not the Hawkeye way.
That was the reality of 2018. They’re determined to run it back this year, with much better results.
“We’re all pumped to go out there and put our foot on the gas and shock everyone — shock all the doubters. We’ve heard a lot about the running game hasn’t been this, hasn’t been that,” Sargent said this week. “We’re coming out there with a different mindset this year.”
They’ll get the first chance to show if things are going to be different this year when No. 19 Iowa opens the season at 6:40 p.m. Saturday vs. Miami of Ohio (FS1). The RedHawks return seven starters on a defense that ranked 57th in FBS against the run last year, surrendering 160 yards per game. Iowa averaged 148.
There is rain in the forecast. And you know Iowa would like nothing better than to run roughshod over a Mid-American Conference foe, hand them a $1.2 million check and start getting ready for Big Ten Conference play.
Sargent, at 5-foot-9, 212 pounds, is likely to get the start in the backfield. He led the Hawkeyes with 745 yards on the ground last season, 294 of those coming in the final two Big Ten games. He also had 17 receptions and is a sturdy blocker, making him the best three-down option on the team.
“I’m very physical, and when I’m in there, I can guarantee (quarterback) Nate (Stanley) doesn’t have anything to worry about,” Sargent proclaimed.
► Depth charts:Projected starters for No. 19 Iowa vs. Miami (Ohio)
Young has practically been a team leader since his arrival in 2016. He ran for 637 yards a year ago and ripped off Iowa’s longest gain of the season on the ground, 40 yards.
After Iowa finished 9-4 and won the Outback Bowl, coach Kirk Ferentz and offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz both said a review of game film revealed they should have used Young more.
Young, who has 181 career carries, heard those comments.
“It’s definitely a compliment, but I’m just focusing on doing my role,” he said.
“I just hope they saw that when I go in there, I do my assignment and I do it to the best of my ability. I give the best effort I can.”
Young is a muscular 5-11, 223. His preferred method is to run over defenders, not around them. He’ll get many chances to do that this season.
Behind Sargent and Young is another junior, Ivory Kelly-Martin. He was last year’s opening-game starter but has battled injuries throughout his career at Iowa and has only 525 rushing yards to show for his two seasons. He’s healthy now, Brian Ferentz said last week, but is a distant third in the running back competition.
True freshmen Shadrick Byrd and Tyler Goodson will also get a chance to play this year, Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday.
Somewhere in that group of five, Iowa hopes to find more big gains in its ground game.
“It’s going to take all of us. We all understand that, as running backs,” Young said. “We really just look forward to getting better and competing and pushing each other and growing stronger, as a unit.”
Running backs coach Derrick Foster had his players take a different view when watching film this offseason: The running backs have been urged to take their eyes off of themselves and to pay attention to what their blockers are doing — what the defenders are trying to do.
“What do we need to expect? Who do we have to make miss?” Sargent said of the new approach.
“We have an idea of what’s going to happen, and from there, athletic ability plays its part. We just make plays after that.”
There weren’t nearly enough plays last season. Iowa running backs only picked up 20 or more yards on seven carries.
Sargent and Young both expressed confidence that bigger things are in store. But they chose their words carefully in interviews this week, knowing no one will believe it until they see it.
“We just want to go in there and, each time we get the ball, we want to try to impact the offense and help move the chains. That’s pretty much our goal,” Young said.
The last time Iowa played Miami of Ohio, in the 2016 season-opener, the Hawkeyes ran for 212 yards, 7.3 per carry. They had five rushing touchdowns, from three different running backs, and won 45-21.
Sargent wouldn’t reveal what the team’s goals are for the ground game. But he did smile when he said this: “I’m more comfortable out there, and me being comfortable is basically me being at my best.”
The message? Iowa's backs are ready to run, not hide from expectations.
Miami of Ohio at Iowa
When: 6:40 p.m. Saturday
Where: Kinnick Stadium
TV: FS1 (Brian Custer and Robert Smith)
Line: Hawkeyes by 21.5
Weather: Considerable cloudiness and a high of 73; 30 percent chance of rain in the evening, when low dips to 59
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Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.
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