Leistikow's Final Thoughts: Hawkeyes' run game searches for octane; no alternate uniforms

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Through nine games, the Iowa football rushing attack has just sort of been … there.

The Hawkeyes are averaging 3.88 yards per carry this season, which ranks 94th among 130 FBS teams. And that average is in spite of the fact that Iowa is one of the least-sacked teams in college football. Negative sack yardage can sometimes mischaracterize the effectiveness of a team’s rushing offense or defense.

Since the opener, Mekhi Sargent (10) has enjoyed Iowa's longest run of the season: 23 yards at Penn State. The Hawkeyes need more explosive plays from their running game.

A nondescript season from Iowa's run game can be traced to a lack of big plays.

Of the Hawkeyes’ 364 rushing attempts this season, only five have gone for at least 20 yards. Only four FBS teams have fewer 20-plus runs.

This shouldn’t happen, right? And at Iowa, of all places?

“Obviously,” center Keegan Render said, “we haven’t given them big enough lanes or one-on-one matchups.”

The two longest rushes of Iowa's season — 40 and 24 yards by Toren Young — came in the season-opener against Northern Illinois.

In the past eight games, only three carries have reached 20-plus — Mekhi Sargent twice at Penn State (23, 20) and Ihmir Smith-Marsette on a jet sweep against Wisconsin (20).

“If we’re able to get more of those,” said Ivory Kelly-Martin, who is averaging 3.7 yards on his 89 carries, “our offense will be cooking a lot better than it has been.”

Cranking out big plays in the run game is a team thing. The offensive linemen and receivers have to account for their men. And then the back has to make someone miss — an area in which Akrum Wadley excelled the prior three seasons.

It could be tough sledding again in Saturday's 2:42 p.m. home game against Northwestern. The Wildcats' rush defense ranks fifth in the Big Ten.

But somebody's got to break one soon.

“Each and every week, we’re so close,” Kelly-Martin said. “We’re a defender away or one arm to the leg or swipe to the leg of being able to break out.”

The Big Ten Conference office received video clips from Iowa about the way Saturday’s game at Purdue was officiated.

The Boilermakers’ grabby defensive tactics riled up Hawkeye fans, players and coaches. Without getting into specifics Tuesday — and he certainly could have — Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz detailed the frustration of changing standards within a game. A key pass interference call went against the Hawkeyes in the final minutes of that 38-36 loss.

"It's like baseball: if an umpire calls them high for strikes, you'd better adjust your strike zone if you're a batter," Ferentz said. "But if they're high and then they're not high or low and not low, that really gets hard to follow the bouncing ball. It's hard to be a good hitter if that strike zone is not real consistent."

Noah Fant felt he faced a “double standard” of getting pass-interference consideration, because of his size (6-foot-5, 241 pounds) vs. the typical defensive back. He was bear-hugged with no call on a key two-point conversion at Purdue.

“Kind of like how LeBron (James) is in the NBA,” Fant said. “He’s so powerful, when he drives the lane, everybody hacks them and they don’t call a foul.”

The focus for he and Iowa’s other receivers going forward, Fant said, is “running routes so good that they don’t have the opportunity to grab us. ... It would be nice if we would get those flags, but we can’t control that.”

A true freshman has (partially) cracked Iowa’s wide-receiver rotation.

You may have seen Tyrone Tracy Jr. on the field at Purdue. Although he wasn’t targeted in his five snaps, his presence showed that coaches trust him in key situations.

“He’s just been really consistent in practice,” quarterback Nate Stanley said. “He may not make the big play like Ihmir and Brandon (Smith). … But he’s very consistent, catches all the balls that are thrown to him. Runs good routes.”

That was Tracy’s second game of the season; he can play in two more without burning a redshirt under the NCAA's new rule. Ferentz said maxing Tracy out at four games is the plan.

"He's not in the Army yet, fully enlisted," Ferentz said, "but he's got a foot in the water, for sure."

Ferentz said linebacker Dillon Doyle, who has played in two games, will also be kept at four.

So far, only three Hawkeye freshmen have topped the four-game mark: defensive backs Julius Brents, Kaevon Merriweather and Riley Moss. At this point, it doesn't look like anyone else will join them.

Stanley goodnaturedly showed reporters his throwing thumb Tuesday.

The tip was a little bruised, but otherwise it looked fine.

Last week, the junior kept his hands tucked in his sweatshirt pocket throughout media interviews, fueling speculation about his playing status at Purdue. It was just a sprained thumb, Ferentz later said, and Stanley had a strong game in West Lafayette — 21-for-32 for 275 yards.

Full speed ahead for QB1’s health.

The same can't be said for Brady Ross.

Iowa's starting fullback will be out this week and probably next, Ferentz said, with his ankle injury. Austin Kelly has done well as a fill-in, but Ross's three-game absence has been a notable loss in run blocking.

Two other guys who won't be back until a bowl game, if then: tight end Shaun Beyer and linebacker Aaron Mends. Such a bummer for Mends, who was in line to be a first-time starter as a fifth-year senior until he tore his ACL in April. The recovery has been painfully slow.

"All these injuries," Ferentz said, "you just feel for the players involved."

Sorry to break this news, but Iowa won’t use alternate uniforms in 2018.

Some fans seemed crestfallen, considering the last time the Hawkeyes wore alternates, they throttled Ohio State 55-24 in 2017's first November home game.

"We'll do our best for next year," Ferentz said, "but we're going to try to win the next three games."

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.