Leistikow: A forced end to Hawkeyes' identity crisis

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. — In six words Tuesday, Kirk Ferentz summed up the importance of top receiver Matt VandeBerg being lost for the rest of the regular season.

“This is hardly a crisis stage,” the 18th-year Hawkeye head coach said.

He didn’t mean it in a callous way.

But perspective is important.

The time in 1999 when all three capable tight ends were injured on a Friday before the game against second-ranked Penn State? That was a football crisis.

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“We're installing a no-tight-end offense that day,” Ferentz recalled. “I remember that pretty distinctly.”

LeShun Daniels Jr. (29) is averaging 5.8 yards per carry this season and has had two long touchdown runs called back.

The 2004 season when Iowa got down to its fifth-string tailback in Sam Brownlee and resorted to a pass-first approach? More of a Football 101 crisis than this.

Nonetheless, the 2016 Hawkeyes are already facing a different problem after an uninspiring 3-1 start.

An identity crisis.

“Our identity is we want to run the ball. And we’re a run-first offense,” left tackle Cole Croston said Tuesday, though you wouldn’t know it if you watched the past two games.

Iowa was held to an unfathomable 34 yards rushing in the 23-21 loss to North Dakota State.

And in the 14-7 win against Rutgers, pro-style quarterback C.J. Beathard was the team’s leading rusher at halftime in a choppy offensive performance.

So, maybe — just maybe — VandeBerg’s injury (again, not being callous) is exactly what this team needed.

Maybe it forces the Hawkeyes to buckle down and do what they’re supposed to do best.

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“We’re a 60-40 run-pass (ratio team), and we haven’t really been doing that the past few games,” Croston said. “We want to get back to running the ball and establishing the run early. And then we work our passes off those runs.”

Now that sounds like Iowa football.

And there’s no better week than to be reminded of that old-school formula to success.

The Hawkeyes host Northwestern for Homecoming on Saturday (11 a.m., ESPNU). As you well remember, a year ago against the Wildcats, Iowa was far more injured than this.

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You might have been able to call that a crisis-mode week, when coaches legitimately didn’t know until Friday whether Beathard would be able to start at quarterback.

That week, everybody in the Iowa Football Performance Center knew they’d be needed to take their play up an extra level.

And that’s exactly what the Hawkeyes did on that Saturday in Evanston, Ill., trouncing Northwestern, 40-10, rolling up 294 rushing yards behind a fourth-string tailback and makeshift offensive line.

“We had guys all over the place,” Croston recalled. “But the game plan was to run the ball and get the run going early.”

I have only visual proof, but when Beathard got hurt briefly against North Dakota State, there was sudden urgency in players’ eyes. For those five plays, with true freshman Nathan Stanley running the show, the Hawkeyes banded together and gained 50 yards to set up a go-ahead touchdown.

That’s the type of urgency that entered into the 2004 equation, when Iowa racked up 240.1 passing yards a game — the second-highest average of the Ferentz era — and shared a Big Ten Conference championship.

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That’s the type of urgency that’s imperative now. And it means getting back to the Hawkeye basics.

Don’t fret about who replaces VandeBerg on Saturday as much as the performances of the five offensive linemen and running backs LeShun Daniels Jr. and Akrum Wadley.

“Especially with Matt being out … we’re not going to be able to be in third-and-long situation and have the defense just pin their ears back and come after us,” said Daniels, who despite the run-game questions is averaging 5.8 yards a carry with Wadley at 7.4. “We’re going to have to do an excellent job of staying on schedule.”

A productive running game will help Band-Aid the Hawkeyes’ other lingering issues, too.

Grinding more clock will freshen a defense that's struggled to get off the field. It’ll keep Beathard from taking repeated punishing hits. Best of all, it might lead to Iowa scoring more points.

And don’t forget, Iowa’s most important games — against the likes of Wisconsin, Michigan and Nebraska — are late in the football calendar. A chain-churning run game is hugely helpful in cold-weather slugfests.

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That's the identity this team now requires.

Run the ball. Run it again. Run some more.

And then, play-action pass with your all-Big Ten quarterback.

“It comes down to us doing our job,” Beathard said. “As long as we’re coming off the ball and making the right blocks, we should give ourselves the best opportunity to win the game.”

Ferentz correctly pointed out Tuesday that VandeBerg’s injury, which leaves the current receiving corps with just 29 career receptions, “won't be the reason we go down the tubes or accelerate” to a strong finish.

But how the Hawkeyes collectively respond to it will.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.