Leistikow: Simplicity is Iowa's best gameplan vs. Nebraska
IOWA CITY, Ia. — In one of the most amusing moments of Kirk Ferentz’s press conference Tuesday, a reporter uncorked a question about “all the things” that have gone wrong with Iowa’s offense this year.
The 18th-year Hawkeye football coach began chuckling and politely cut him off.
“I think that’s a nice way to say it, but anyway, go ahead,” Ferentz said. “It’s better than saying, ‘You guys stink.’”
The reloaded question, like the original, certainly was valid, and Ferentz knew it.
Through 11 games, the facts are the facts: The Hawkeyes’ offense ranks 121st out of 128 FBS teams.
“Well, you know, I think we have a bead on why things are challenging right now. And I like my word better: challenging,” Ferentz said. “So, you know, the bottom line is what the game's about is trying to find a way to win.”
That Ferentz has a bead on what’s wrong (aka challenging) could provide some quiet confidence going into Friday’s regular-season finale against 9-2 and No. 15 Nebraska (2:30 p.m., ABC).
Sometimes the best solution to a problem is the simplest one.
Certainly the past two weeks, in slugfest victories in which Iowa averaged less than 300 yards of offense, the Hawkeyes have unearthed a winning formula.
That’s involved more double-tight end formations, more fullback and more straight-ahead running.
In other words, more LeShun Daniels Jr. and more Akrum Wadley.
Against Michigan, Wadley and Daniels accounted for a remarkable 96.1 percent of Iowa’s offense (221 of 230 yards).
Against Illinois, they joined forces for 72.3 percent (247 of 342 yards) and all three offensive touchdowns.
The 2016 Hawkeyes that can’t throw the ball have become the opposite of the 2004 Big Ten co-champion Hawkeyes that couldn’t run it.
“In 2004, it was just 'find a way to win,'” Ferentz said. “That's where we are right now.”
The Hawkeyes have assembled a 7-4 record in spite of a yardage shortfall: They've gained 3,591 yards while giving up 4,017.
And here’s the crazy part: It’s possible the Hawkeyes will, for the first time in school history, wind up with multiple 1,000-yard rushers in the same season.
Iowa has had only two 1,000-yard rushers in Ferentz’s previous 10 seasons — Shonn Greene in 2008 and Marcus Coker in 2011.
“At least one of us will probably get it,” Daniels said, a few days before his final home game as a Hawkeye. “… Obviously, we want to do whatever we can for our team to get victories. Running the ball has been an extremely integral part of that.”
Wadley has rushed for 861 yards on 135 attempts; Daniels 855 on 169.
Wadley averages 78.3 yards a game; Daniels 77.7. Counting the bowl game — probably the Dec. 27 Holiday or Dec. 30 Music City — they need to average 69.5 and 72.5, respectively, to get there.
“I think that’s doable throughout the last two games,” Daniels said. “We’ll see.”
If the Hawkeyes can get both close to the century mark by about 6 p.m. Friday, they’ll likely have improved to 8-4 and will await their bowl fate nine days later.
Nebraska’s rush defense is decent, ranking fifth in the Big Ten at 129.8 yards a game.
But a peek inside the numbers reveals that this is still where the Cornhuskers are vulnerable.
They’ve allowed the second-fewest carries among Big Ten teams, largely because inferior opponents have been playing catch-up. But against three run-committed opponents this season, Nebraska has yielded team rushing totals of 336 yards to Oregon, 223 to Wisconsin and 238 to Ohio State.
George Kittle’s expected return at tight end should only embolden Iowa’s run-game bullishness. Before his foot injury, he was graded as one of the team’s top blockers.
“We’re focusing on running the ball. We do that pretty well. I’m completely OK with that,” Kittle said this week. “I think I said at the beginning of the season, I’d rather pancake somebody than catch the ball. That’s still true today.”
Maybe that’s what Ferentz meant when he said he had a bead on this offense.
Pound the rock, let linemen block, control the clock.
It's Senior-Day simple.
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.