Leistikow: For successful football season, Iowa must contend for Big Ten West title

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central
Ivory Kelly-Martin (taking a hand-off from Nate Stanley during Iowa's Aug. 11 Kids Day scrimmage) figures to be a focal point in the Hawkeyes' efforts to effectively run the football in 2018.

The Iowa football program is getting increasingly better at self-awareness.

From an outside perspective, it’s been noticeable.

There's a Tigerhawk at mid-field of Kinnick Stadium ... and even on the next-door water tower.

The program is highlighting younger up-and-comers rather than shielding them.

The Iowa video crew went to the hometown of junior quarterback Nate Stanley for an excellent summer feature. They were permitted to mic up freshman receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette a year ago in fall camp and unproven middle linebacker Amani Jones this year. Coaches trusted true junior tight end Noah Fant, rather than a fifth-year senior, to serve as the lone offensive player representative on the Big Ten Network’s annual bus-tour TV special.

More importantly, there’s also a program-wide self-awareness on the field.

That was especially notable last week as offensive Brian Ferentz spoke of the staff doing some self-scouting. Among the highest-priority things to fix: the run game.

Often the bread and butter of the Iowa program, Ferentz spoke plainly about the Hawkeyes' 3.76 yards-per-carry average last fall, 104th in the FBS. (Iowa hit 4.48 per carry in its 12-2 season of 2015.)

“You look at the way we rushed the football last year? That’s not going to be good enough to win at a consistent or a championship level in our league,” Ferentz said. “And that’s what we’re striving for — the goal is to win championships.”

It’s good to hear that goal stated, too. Iowa isn’t satisfied — nor should it be — unless it’s positioned to win a Big Ten Conference championship. The players who have said 8-5 was "average" the last two years were speaking the truth.

Iowa hasn’t won the Big Ten since 2004, when it shared the regular-season title with Michigan. To have a chance to break that drought, the Hawkeyes first have to win the Big Ten West to gain entry into the Dec. 1 title game in Indianapolis.

And that starts with being better than heavy division favorite Wisconsin.

It means being able to ground-and-pound with success, like the Badgers do. One of the most impressive things Wisconsin did last season was to uncork three straight 10-play touchdown drives in the second half to pull away from Nebraska; an astonishing 28 of those 30 snaps were running plays.

We're going to run it. You can't stop us.

“If we’re going to be successful here, we need to be able to run the football,” Ferentz said. “We need to do it whenever everyone knows we’re going to do it. Otherwise, we have no chance.”

Hello, Northern Illinois.

Hello, Week 1.

Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. season opener against the Huskies offers Iowa a first crack at showing it can again be the “Bullies of the Big Ten.”

It’ll be a stiff challenge.

As you no doubt have heard by now, the Hawkeyes will be without their mauling 320-pound offensive tackles for this game. No. 1 left tackle Alaric Jackson is suspended for violating team policy; No. 1 right tackle Tristan Wirfs is suspended for a July OWI arrest. Defensive tackles Cedrick Lattimore and Brady Reiff are also suspended.

All four should return for the Sept. 8 matchup against Iowa State, but getting there with a 1-0 record is no gimme.

Northern Illinois returns its entire defensive line from a team that allowed just 3.0 yards per carry in 2017. (By contrast, Iowa’s Josey Jewell-led defense allowed 4.1 per rush in 2017.)

Still … if Iowa — even with backups on the offensive line — cannot run the football effectively against a Group of Five program, it’ll be an ominous indicator for the season.

And that's the word coming from the offensive coordinator.

“If we can’t establish the running game from the opening snap of the season to the closing whistle of Game 12,” Ferentz said, “I think it’s going to be hard for us to have any kind of sustained success offensively.”

So, here we go.

Iowa's power will be put to the test, right from the start.

Game week — and the 2018 Hawkeye football season — is here.

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.

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