Leistikow: Iowa football's run game is broken, and it's a big problem
EAST LANSING, Mich. — Akrum Wadley used an economy of words to explain a historically awful Saturday for Iowa’s running game inside Spartan Stadium.
Yet he said a lot.
What’s wrong with the Hawkeye rushing attack?
“I have no idea.”
What are you seeing?
“We’ve just got to execute better.”
You, as well as the offensive line?
Are the holes just not there for you?
“What (do) you see?”
Answer: The same thing every Hawkeye fan who stomached the 17-10 loss to a very beatable Michigan State team.
Nowhere to run.
Iowa rushed for a grand total of 19 yards on 25 attempts, its worst output since netting minus-9 in a 2005 game at Ohio State.
Wadley, the game-breaking senior, carried 17 times for 30 yards.
When Iowa needed to set the tone with a running game in a hostile road environment, Wadley’s first six carries went for 0, minus-2, minus-1, 3, 1 and minus-1 yards.
How does this happen with an offensive line that won last year's Joe Moore Award as the nation's best?
It’s not as simple as Michigan State loading up to stop the run — the same thing Penn State did a week ago at Kinnick Stadium.
No matter the opponent, Iowa's running attack has been ineffective.
Coming into this game, the Hawkeyes were averaging a putrid 3.8 yards a carry. After Saturday, it’s down to 3.4.
In each of the past two seasons, Iowa averaged 4.5 yards a carry.
Saturday, it felt like any gain of positive yardage was a pleasant surprise. Of Iowa’s 25 official rushes (sacks count), 13 went for zero or negative yardage. Thirteen.
Is this Iowa?
“That’s something we’re going to have to work on,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said afterward.
Captain Kirk was Captain Obvious there.
“I don’t think anybody’s ready to hit the panic button," Ferentz said. "But we need to hit the improve button.”
Where to find that button?
It's next to the button that says "execution," which was was the buzzword in postgame interviews Saturday.
“It comes down to execution,” tight end T.J. Hockenson said. “A lot of times we’re not on the same page.”
That doesn't sound good.
What, then, does execution mean?
For senior right tackle Sean Welsh, it’s “making sure I block my guy soundly with good fundamentals. I do my job, essentially. When you have everyone doing that on our side of the ball, good things can happen. But it only takes one guy, and it can go south.”
That much was painfully clear Saturday night. Iowa’s running game is broken.
Opposing teams know that the best way for the Hawkeyes to move the ball is through Wadley. His long touchdown catch helped Iowa rally to beat Iowa State in Week 2, and his home-run heroics almost helped stun Penn State last week.
Replacing Wadley isn’t the answer, obviously. But when he’s essentially getting all the running-back snaps, perhaps it’s a good reminder that James Butler’s elbow injury was more of a significant blow than maybe we first realized.
Without Butler, Iowa has just 101 yards on the ground on 48 attempts during what’s now a two-game losing streak. Maybe Iowa needs to give Toren Young, a 220-pound battering ram, a few more carries to move the line of scrimmage.
But the biggest issue is moving the ball, period.
Iowa gained 11 first downs last week, 11 this week.
That’s as much on the players executing as it is on the coaching staff. This was an ugly performance new Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz won't want to repeat.
At some point, Nate Stanley and the passing game must consistently loosen defensive pressure at the line of scrimmage.
“The running game and pass game complement one another,” receiver Matt VandeBerg said. “We need to continue to pass the ball. We need to be able to hit our deep shots, things like that, in order to help the run game.”
Amen to that.
Defenses are going to continue to attack, attack, attack Iowa's desire to run.
That’s nothing new.
“I’ll go back to ’04 when we couldn’t run it. Everybody knew we couldn’t run it,” Kirk Ferentz said of that team that got down to a fifth-string running back and averaged 2.0 yards a carry yet still shared a Big Ten Conference championship. “And they still came to take the run away. I’m still trying to figure that one out.
“That’s just part of the deal. We have to find balance.”
This game was a missed opportunity, a toss-up tilt that Iowa needed.
The defense did its job. It allowed three points in the final three quarters.
Yeah, the field position stunk. But the offense still had chances to take control of this game, and it couldn't. That's the byproduct of a broken run game.
Now, Iowa is 0-2 in the Big Ten for the first time in nine years. It now feels like this team will be fighting for bowl eligibility, not a West Division title.
Something must change.
Your move, Hawkeyes.
“We’ve got to look in the mirror and ask ourselves if we’re doing the best we can do, myself included," Wadley said in one of his longer answers of the night.
"We don’t want the season to take a turn the other way. We’ve got to step up and do something.”
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.