Leistikow: How much should Wadley, Jewell, Myers play vs. North Texas?
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Football-wise, Iowa players absolutely should be focused on one thing and one thing only this week: beating North Texas in Saturday’s 2:30 p.m., ESPN2-televised game.
The Hawkeyes are a 21½-point favorite against the Mean Green of Conference USA.
The last time a team was favored by three touchdowns in Kinnick Stadium?
That’d be Nov. 12. That team was Michigan.
And (thanks to Akrum Wadley and Keith Duncan) that didn’t turn out so well for the Wolverines' hopes of a perfect season.
So, no result can ever be taken for granted in a 60-minute game built around a need for constant intensity.
But that shouldn’t stop the rest of us — even the coaches, to an extent — from a little big-picture thinking entering Week 3 of Iowa’s 12-game schedule.
Let’s start the conversation by restating the program’s primary goal: to compete for (and win) Big Ten Conference championships.
Just like the first two games, both wins, against Wyoming and Iowa State, Saturday’s game has zero bearing on that goal.
To that end, then, here are three big-picture discussions Iowa worth having about Saturday.
Make it a James Butler day
Wadley has shouldered 60 touches through two weeks. While putting up 406 all-purpose yards, the senior running back has also taken some heavy wallops.
You need Wadley in Big Ten play. When he's healthy, he's proven he can win you an extra game or two.
MORE FROM CHAD: The Akrum Wadley interview I'll never forget
You can beat North Texas without much Wadley, who showed up to interviews Tuesday with a light wrap around his right knee.
I’ve been impressed so far with Butler’s ability to gain positive yards after contact on his 20 Hawkeye carries for 84 yards. He showed at Nevada (where he rushed for 3,316 yards on 608 carries in three seasons) he can handle a workhorse load, and this is the week to take his powerful legs for a longer spin — and to use Wadley as needed.
Even Wadley indicated that could be the plan.
“James, he has some really explosive plays and caught one out of the backfield (for 26 yards vs. Iowa State) and broke about two or three tackles,” Wadley said. “He went beast mode. He needs to play more, and we’re going to make that happen.”
This should also be the week Toren Young, a redshirt freshman, makes his Hawkeye debut. The 5-foot-11, 220-pound native of Madison, Wisconsin, has been impressive in scrimmages, and coach Kirk Ferentz said he continues to practice well.
“If James Butler weren't on the team right now, he'd be getting a lot more work,” Ferentz said of Young, “but we'll get there at some point. We've got a lot more football in front of us, and he’s going to help us."
Limit Josey Jewell’s snaps
I thought about writing that Iowa should keep Jewell on the sidelines altogether if the left ankle he sprained in the fourth quarter against Iowa State isn’t fully recovered.
But then I remembered, the fierce-minded Jewell would never let that happen. Not even against North Texas. The preseason all-American middle linebacker is antsy to get back on the field after Iowa’s defense gave up 41 points last week.
Of his ankle, Jewell said Tuesday: “Just rolled it up a little bit. It’ll be good by this Saturday.”
Most of us who played competitive sports have sprained an ankle.
We know the best thing for a sprain is rest. The worst thing for a sprain is to sprain it again.
In Jewell, we're talking about the heart and soul of Iowa’s defense. The Hawkeyes need him as close to 100 percent as possible for the mega-challenge ahead on Sept. 23 against Trace McSorley, Saquon Barkley & Co.
Assuming Jewell plays — he’s the center man on Iowa’s “dime” package, too — it’s worth counting his pitches (Ferentz quipped this week, he hates pitch counts in baseball, by the way) and letting the bullpen finish this off.
None of Iowa’s second-team linebackers — Kevin Ward, Kristian Welch and Aaron Mends — has played this season, outside of special teams. If Iowa gets up two touchdowns, maybe it's time to give Welch a series at middle linebacker. Or at least let Niemann or Bower replace Jewell as the lone “dime” linebacker.
Iowa showed it was willing to limit Jewell’s mileage in spring practice and fall camp, much to the player's chagrin. With Big Ten goals in mind, similar care would be welcomed Saturday.
Hold back Boone Myers
With Ike Boettger done for the year (Achilles), trusted guard Sean Welsh is the new right tackle. Ideally, Iowa can return Welsh — its best pure blocker — inside again at some point.
Making that happen means either fast-tracking true freshman Tristan Wirfs (pulling his redshirt is the plan) or getting proven tackle Myers (a 22-game starter) back to full strength.
Myers has served mostly as a backup guard in Weeks 1 and 2 as he's recovering from an ankle injury. But he's been pressed into duty in each game as injuries have cropped up.
Asked this week if Myers was 100 percent, Ferentz’s first five words were: “Boone's gaining ground right now.”
Sounds like a guy who needs another week. Myers finished the Iowa State game strong at left guard. The fifth-year senior is valuable, even when banged-up.
But a prudent plan would be to let the listed starting line — Alaric Jackson, Ross Reynolds, James Daniels, Keegan Render and Welsh — go as long as required against North Texas, and keep Myers stuck on the bench unless there's an emergency.
Wirfs needs snaps, too. If the scoreboard situation is comfortable, get Welsh and Daniels (your two best linemen) out of there, and get Wirfs and whoever else besides Myers is the next man in — maybe Levi Paulsen? — on the field.
Myers doesn’t need experience. He needs a good leg.
Holding him, and maybe a few others, back might give Iowa a healthier leg up when Penn State comes to town.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.