Leistikow: The statistic Iowa football must change to finish season strong

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — How many yards per carry is Iowa allowing through six football games this season?

“Too many,” middle linebacker Josey Jewell said Tuesday.

The number is alarming.

The number ranks 11th in the Big Ten Conference.

Iowa's Anthony Nelson (98) and Josey Jewell (43) had trouble chasing down Northwestern's Justin Jackson last year in Iowa City. Jackson rushed 26 times for 171 yards in a 38-31 Wildcats win.

If it stands, the number would be the lowest by any Hawkeye defense since 1999 — head coach Kirk Ferentz’s first season.

The number is 4.51.

A sound rushing defense is “something we always take pride in,” defensive end Parker Hesse said, before admitting, “We’re not where we want to be right now.”

It’s a number that Iowa, you could argue, has gotten away with on the way to a decent 4-2 start. It's done a good job on the scoreboard, allowing 18.7 points a game — a much-better sixth in the Big Ten.

But if the 4.51-per-carry average doesn't come down, it's going to catch up with the Hawkeyes.

Maybe soon.

Iowa will face three of the top four rushers in the Big Ten Conference over the next four Saturdays — No. 4 Justin Jackson of Northwestern this week, No. 2 J.K. Dobbins of Ohio State on Nov. 4, then league leader Jonathan Taylor of Wisconsin on Nov. 11.

Even the 2014 Hawkeyes, who we remember struggled mightily to stop edge runs against talented running backs like Indiana’s Tevin Coleman, Minnesota’s David Cobb and Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon, allowed fewer yards per carry (4.42).

How did 4.51 happen?

And what can be done to fix it?

The answers to those questions are complicated, but important to unpack.

First, college football has evolved since the Hawkeye run-defense heyday. Iowa’s yards-per-carry-allowed from 2002 to 2004 was a sparkling 2.56, 2.51 and 2.83.

(No wonder each of those teams ended up in the top 10 nationally.)

Running the football out of spread formations has become the norm — popularized at Florida with Urban Meyer, who has since brought that scheme to Ohio State — and a challenge for the read-and-react style of base defense that Iowa deploys.

“It’s a little bit more like the days of option football,” Ferentz said Tuesday, “because so many people are running their quarterbacks now, so that makes it a little bit different dimension.”

Shouldn’t it help that Iowa has an all-American middle linebacker?

Not when he gets pulled out of the so-called “box” and into pass coverage.

Smart teams have frequently lined up three wide receivers against the Hawkeyes, and that has often drawn Jewell — Iowa’s best defensive player — away from the football while leaving one linebacker (usually Bo Bower) inside.

That makes for a lot of 5-on-5 blocking battles — five offensive linemen vs. four Iowa defensive linemen plus Bower — and a lot of defensive ground to cover.

“You’ve got to be pretty detailed up front with the D-line,” Jewell explained. “You’ve got to get them on the right page and make sure they’re spilling (runs) outside. Because when you’re spread out, you don’t have a lot of guys in the middle — especially right behind the D-line.”

Some of the 4.51 is about tackling angles and execution, too.

Those were two high-priority issues during Iowa’s bye week. There’s encouragement that Brandon Snyder has returned to the lineup at free safety. He's a key signal-caller in the back end of Iowa’s defense who missed the first five games after April knee surgery.

This week, you can be sure that Northwestern will try to spread out the Iowa defense.

Two years ago, the Hawkeyes answered well, bottling up Jackson to the tune of 10 carries for 30 yards. Iowa won, 40-10.

Last October, Jackson popped loose in Kinnick Stadium for 171 yards on 26 carries. Iowa lost, 38-31.

The Wildcats also like to push the tempo with experienced quarterback Clayton Thorson. That, again, falls on Jewell to get his team into the right spots.

“You’re going to have to get the call from the sideline pretty quick, be able to digest them, and regurgitate them out to the rest of the defense — get the D-line in the spot they need to be in,” Jewell said. “Then comes the time for adjustments. With hurry-up, you’ve got to be more on top of your game.”

Why not just sell out to stop the run?

Of course, that’s when an opponent can burn you through the air. Northwestern was highly successful at underneath passing routes in Saturday’s 37-21 win at Maryland, in which Thorson completed 27 of 49 passes for 293 yards.

“If you get all the backers out of the box, it makes it more difficult,” defensive tackle Matt Nelson said. “But I think we’ve got a good game plan this week that allows us to get as many hats to the ball as we can.”

Ultimately, wins and losses come down to Iowa players winning battles in the trenches — on both sides of the ball.

The Hawkeyes' offense is averaging just 3.67 yards per rushing attempt, which would be the lowest mark since the ugly 4-8 season of 2012.

“Where we're at offensively and where we're at defensively, (the goal is to) flip-flop them,” Ferentz said. “That may be tough to do over the next six weeks.”

So mark it down: Iowa’s offense is at 3.67 per carry; the defense is at 4.51.

If the first number goes up and the other goes down, the Hawkeyes can accomplish some good things this season.

Running back Akrum Wadley said it: A win Saturday is a must. Oddsmakers view the Northwestern game (11 a.m., ESPN2) as a toss-up. Iowa (4-2, 1-2) can’t afford to lose if it wants to make the Nov. 11 matchup at Wisconsin (6-0, 3-0) mean something in the Big Ten West race.

“Our goals are still out there,” linebacker Ben Niemann said.

Accomplishing them starts with stopping the run.

“If we contain the run, they can throw on third-and-long or second-and-long, and that’s what we want," safety Amani Hooker said. "We’ve got to make sure we fly to the ball and make tackles."

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.

Time to get stingy

Iowa's yards per carry allowed, by season, in the Kirk Ferentz era.

2017: 4.51* 

2016: 3.96

2015: 3.62

2014: 4.42

2013: 3.58

2012: 4.11

2011: 3.69

2010: 3.24

2009: 3.49

2008: 3.08

2007: 3.22

2006: 3.62

2005: 3.21

2004: 2.83

2003: 2.51

2002: 2.56

2001: 3.21

2000: 4.47

1999: 4.95

* — through 6 games