Leistikow's 5 thoughts: Northwestern matchup gives Iowa football's lagging run game a crease of hope

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — A little more than a month ago, Wisconsin suffered humbling back-to-back losses. The clear favorite in the Big Ten Conference’s West Division melted down late in a 41-13 loss to Notre Dame at Soldier Field, then was manhandled at home in a 38-17 setback to Michigan to fall to 1-3 overall.

A consistent, physical Big Ten West program suddenly coming to grips with uncharacteristic struggles ... boy, that sounds familiar right now, doesn’t it?

The Badgers went minus-6 in turnover margin in those two losses. They realized they needed to stop the self-inflicted pain. So, they regrouped. They got back to the basics of their program.

They didn’t change quarterbacks, but they did significantly restrict the throwing frequency of Graham Mertz. His main responsibility during a current four-game winning streak in which Wisconsin has outscored its opponents, 101-34? Handing the ball off to running backs, with the occasional short pass.

Maybe it’s time for Iowa to follow the Wisconsin blueprint.

Tyler Goodson was held to just 27 yards on 13 carries against Wisconsin, and he gained 68 yards on just 12 rushes against Purdue. Maybe he needs 25 carries or more Saturday at Northwestern.

The Hawkeyes have also gone minus-6 in turnovers in back-to-back losses to Purdue (24-7) and Wisconsin (27-7). Quarterback Spencer Petras has been under fire behind an offensive line that is struggling to protect him and has committed five turnovers in the two-game losing streak.

“It can get frustrating," Iowa running back Tyler Goodson said Tuesday. "It is frustrating.”

Sure, Iowa’s running game is struggling. But so was Wisconsin’s, by its standards, until making a total recommitment to the run.

Now, absolutely, it’s true that Iowa’s offensive line is its biggest weakness on the team. The Hawkeyes are 117th out of 130 FBS teams with 105 rushing yards per game and are 123rd with 2.88 yards per carry. They are 126th in tackles-for-loss allowed, at 8.25 per game (after another 10 vs. Wisconsin).

But look a little closer, and the rushing numbers aren’t horrible. Subtract 165 yards on 24 sacks (which count against rushing) and 13 yards on six kneel-downs, and Iowa has 262 carries for 1,018 yards this season — 3.89 yards per attempt. That's not great, but it's better than going backwards. And, according to Pro Football Focus, Iowa’s offensive line is more effective as run-blockers than in pass protection.

Iowa all-American center Tyler Linderbaum was a voice of reason Tuesday, saying there is bigger adversity in the world than a Hawkeye football losing streak. But he's a competitor and he hears the outside noise, that the offensive line isn't playing up to snuff. 

“Things are going to start clicking. We’re in a lull right now," Linderbaum said. "I have the utmost confidence in our coaching staff and players that we’re going to push through this and be totally fine.”

Maybe it’s time to activate fullback Monte Pottebaum (just 13 snaps at Wisconsin) into something closer to an every-down role. Maybe it's time to copy Wisconsin and go to a 1-2 running-back punch, with Tyler Goodson in the lead role and Gavin Williams, who has fresh legs and a 6-foot, 211-pound frame, as the backup.

Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz can’t forget those wide-receiver runs, either. Only one was tried against Wisconsin, and it went for 12 yards for Keagan Johnson. Use Tyrone Tracy Jr. and Charlie Jones and Arland Bruce IV in the jet-sweep game.

And if you punt after three downs, well, maybe you gained eight yards instead of losing 12 with sacks. That’s a 20-yard improvement in field position, and it might help everyone’s confidence.

More:Leistikow's DVR Monday: What can be learned from Iowa football's very bad Saturday in Madison?

“We just need to be consistent and gain yards and gain yards," said Goodson, who has been limited to 25 carries for 95 yards in Iowa's two-game losing streak, "and then break a big run.”

When Wisconsin made the switch, it had a weaker divisional opponent up first — Illinois, in a 24-0 win. The next opponent for 16th-ranked Iowa (6-2, 3-2 Big Ten) is familiar but more vulnerable than usual.

Northwestern (3-5, 1-4) ranks last in the Big Ten and 126th in the country in rushing defense. The Wildcats gave up 326 rushing yards to Michigan State, 208 to Duke, 427 to Nebraska, 294 to Michigan and 308 to Minnesota.

Yeah … it’s time to for Iowa to pick its five best run-blocking linemen and run, run, run on the Ryan Field grass (6 p.m. Saturday, BTN).

“We have talked about their stats," Petras said. "The biggest thing for us is that we need to run the ball effectively every game to play our best. That’s just how our offense is built."

Linderbaum finished one of his quotes Tuesday by saying, "We’re going to get this thing rolling.”

I jumped in and joked: That sounds like a guarantee.

“I can’t guarantee anything," Linderbaum said, smiling. "But we’re getting better. Our mentality as a unit is good."

More:Iowa football turning to past experiences, veteran leadership to turn around two-game skid

Goodson and Williams are ready for a heavier workload.

With Iowa announcing Monday the running back Ivory Kelly-Martin is doubtful this week due to an injury, Williams — the redshirt freshman from Dowling Catholic — needs to be ready. Williams has done well in pinch-hitting performances, like when he converted a fourth down on Iowa's 20-play scoring drive against Kent State in Week 3. For the season, Williams has 54 yards on 13 offensive touches.

"Gavin does everything right. He prepares right. He’s always ready, no matter the situation," Goodson said. "… He’s been doing a good job making sure he’s prepared."

And Goodson is ready for a big workload, too. Some of his biggest games as a Hawkeye have come during the back half of the season. He rushed for 116 yards on 13 carries in the 2019 regular-season finale at Nebraska; he finished the 2020 season with an 80-yard touchdown run vs. Wisconsin.

“I pride myself on getting stronger and stronger throughout the season. It may not be the case sometimes," Goodson said. "But the games we do have a chance to pop open and break the run game, I’ll be prepared for the situation."

More:Leistikow: What changes did Iowa make in its bye week? From the look of things, not many

True freshman Keagan Johnson has been fully activated.

Johnson said nobody told him he was going to play more snaps than any wide receiver at Wisconsin. The rookie from Bellevue, Nebraska, logged 44 snaps — a huge increase from the previous-game total of 16 and his season average of 15.1 — in Madison and almost single-handedly made one of the offense’s few positive plays.

With Iowa getting back-to-back first downs, Johnson took an end-around pitch. It didn’t look like there was much running room for him on the right sideline, but Johnson put his head down and ran as fast as he could. He sprung through a hole, then busted two tackles and lunged forward to the 2-yard line. A 12-yard gain felt like a 40-yard gain the way Iowa’s offense struggled Saturday.

For Johnson, it was an example of his physical gifts and mature mentality.

“When I get the ball in my hands, the main thought is, ‘Score.’ It doesn’t really matter where I’m at or what route I’m running,” Johnson said. “I think if you give more effort than the other man, I think it gives you a shot. My thing is giving my all on that play. We needed a spark. I just felt like if I do get the ball in my hands, I’m going to do something that will give this team a spark. That’s all I was thinking as I ran around (end).”

More:Iowa football postgame mailbag: Should Iowa make a change at quarterback after Wisconsin fiasco?

Johnson has earned the snaps he’s received. For the season, Tracy is tops at 336 snaps among receivers, followed by Jones (282), Nico Ragaini (259), Johnson (150) and Arland Bruce IV (100). But he also is a work in progress, as was evidence by dropping a late pass at Wisconsin from Alex Padilla. That’s a ball Johnson is more likely to grab next time.

“If I’m put out there on the big stage, I’m expected to make a play,” Johnson said. “I don’t really like to give my age as an excuse.”

Expect a second straight start for Jermari Harris.

Head coach Kirk Ferentz on Tuesday said that cornerbacks Riley Moss and Terry Roberts were “doubtful" to play Saturday with ongoing injuries. The Moss news is especially tough, as this would be his third straight game out of the starting lineup after injuring his left knee against Penn State. Ferentz said he hoped both players would be back next week against Minnesota.

That puts the spotlight again on Harris, and maybe it comes at a perfect venue. Harris is a Chicago native. The redshirt sophomore weathered some early targets against Wisconsin and played better as the game went on.

“He’s our fourth corner, and that’s how he came out of camp. I think he did a good job,” Ferentz said. “You always worry about a new guy being too anxious or too jumpy out there, but I think he handled the situation pretty well.”

Northwestern will likely throw more passes than Wisconsin’s 21, so Harris will be tested again. Expect Iowa to go with more of its 4-2-5 personnel in this one.

Once again, don’t look for schematic changes on offense this week.

That’s straight from Ferentz, who continued to stress the focus on improving fundamentals. He dismissed the notion that with the offensive line struggling in pass protection that there might be some room to consider a backup quarterback with more mobility, like Iowa has in Alex Padilla.

"Purdue did a good job rotating quarterbacks (in a 24-7 win in Iowa City); had a little success doing that," Ferentz said. "But we haven’t given that much thought at this point.

“We’re trying to focus on the protection right now. We may get to that. That may be Plan C.”

I do think if the offense continues to stagnate, there's a time when Padilla can counter defenses that have been attacking the pocket without fear of being hurt by the quarterback’s legs. For now, though, especially if Iowa deploys a run-heavy strategy at Northwestern … Petras remains the QB that coaches trust the most.

By the way, Petras said he would play Saturday after taking a big hit toward the end of the Wisconsin game. Padilla ran the show for Iowa’s final two drives, covering 10 snaps.

“A little of everything (injury-wise),” Petras said. “I’m good. It’s this point of the year, we’re all banged up.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.