Leistikow: Coming to grips with Hawkeyes' rash of significant football injuries
IOWA CITY, Ia. — There are two sizable, under-discussed reasons why the Iowa football offense has struggled more than anyone associated with the program would like.
By sizable, I’m talking 617 listed pounds of humanity between Boone Myers and Ike Boettger.
The fifth-year seniors were supposed to be bookend fixtures on Iowa’s offensive line; Myers a third-year starter at left tackle, Boettger a third-year starter on the right.
But neither has played a snap since September for the 4-3 Hawkeyes, who have lost three out of four games following a 3-0 start.
Boettger was lost for the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon in Week 2.
Myers hasn’t been himself since before the season and was shut down after Week 5 after struggling through a high-ankle sprain as a part-time guard.
As much frustration as there is to watch Iowa’s offensive line struggle to crack open even the slightest hole for star running back Akrum Wadley, imagine what it must be like to be either one of those injured players.
James Daniels provided a little window into that topic Tuesday. Iowa’s starting center has lived with Myers for more than a year.
“It sucks to see him at home. He’s always sad,” Daniels said. “I hate seeing anybody sad, especially somebody I care about like him.”
Kirk Ferentz calls seeing what’s happened with Myers and Boettger the toughest part of coaching. Ferentz didn’t sound optimistic about Myers’ return, saying he might know more about his future by week's end.
“Here’s a guy that’s a senior. A really good player. Tremendous young man,” Ferentz said. “And he’s not able to play the way he wants to.”
The human part of this and the football part of this are both bummers.
Myers and Boettger are very good football players — 46 career starts between them.
In case you forgot, they (along with Cole Croston) were the starting tackles for the 2015 Hawkeyes as sophomores.
All that team did was produce a 12-0 regular season.
Their replacements? A redshirt freshman, Alaric Jackson; and the first true freshman starting tackle of the 19-year Ferentz era, Tristan Wirfs.
“That’s tough,” linebacker Ben Niemann said. “… Boone and Ike are great leaders, and it’s tough being without them. The guys that are in their spots are more than capable. They’re trying to get better and bring it every day.”
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The rookies may look the part, but they’re not playing like proven fifth-year seniors would at such an intricate position dependent on physicality, smarts and communication.
So, whether you want to accept it or not, their inexperience is a contributing (but not only) factor in why Iowa has one of the worst rushing offenses in the Big Ten, at 3.2 yards carry in conference play and 3.5 overall.
Iowa's lineup shuffles this fall haven't been exclusive to the tackles. Injuries have taken big bites out of what these 2017 Hawkeyes were supposed to look like.
Their best safety, Brandon Snyder, has played in one game because of a torn ACL.
Their graduate-transfer running back, James Butler, has yet to play a Big Ten snap with an elbow injury.
Their presumed best cornerback, Manny Rugamba, has been in and out of the lineup with a high-ankle sprain.
And last week, their best player in middle linebacker Josey Jewell missed Saturday's 17-10 Northwestern loss with a shoulder injury.
Yeah, injuries are part of football. Always have been. But they must at least be mentioned in the context of wins and losses.
Some years, they hit harder than others.
“It always makes it a little more complicated,” Ferentz said Tuesday. “There are very few years, actually, where you get through it.”
That kindled thoughts of 2002, Ferentz's breakthrough season at Iowa that ended with an 8-0 Big Ten record and spot in the Orange Bowl.
“I think I’m correct in saying we lost one starter for a couple games. Otherwise, we went through with the same group of starters all season long,” Ferentz said. “When you have a good team and the same lineup every week, that’s a good thing. Right now, we’re trying to put things together. It just makes it a little bit more challenging, that’s all.
“And part of football is how well you can adjust to those unforeseen circumstances.”
He’s right. It ultimately comes down to coaches to have the second- and third-teamers prepared to play when starters go down.
But there’s usually a reason they’re second- and third-teamers. They typically don’t get the practice reps and game experience the first-teamers do.
Back in 2012, Iowa didn’t have a good plan when it lost starting offensive linemen Brandon Scherff and Andrew Donnal within a few snaps of each other against Penn State. The Hawkeyes would go on to lose their final six games and finish 4-8.
It doesn't feel like this team is on that steep of a downward spiral.
And it seems they’re starting to get healthier. Barring setbacks, it looks like the same offensive line will start for the third straight week. Jewell, the all-American, will again roam the middle of Iowa’s defense. Butler is close to returning. Rugamba looked more like himself against Northwestern.
“As much as we all try to predict what's going to happen or what things are going to look like,” Ferentz said. “There is no way to predict (injuries). It's just part of the challenge of any sport."
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.