Rick Brown: How Hawkeyes can succeed without Scherff
IOWA CITY, Ia. – Kirk Ferentz was an NFL assistant when he read something that caught his eye.
Mike Shanahan, the coach of the Denver Broncos at the time, was talking about "Next Man In." That went right into Ferentz's memory bank, and it's now cemented in his coaching philosophy at Iowa.
Lose a player? Don't make excuses, or play the pity party. Go to the depth chart instead. Next Man In. I've admired that trait in Ferentz for years. I think it's one of his greatest strengths as a coach.
So welcome, redshirt freshman Ike Boettger. You're the next man in at left offensive tackle. You'll be replacing 320 pounds of all-American blocking ability in Brandon Scherff, expected to be sidelined for a few weeks after knee surgery Tuesday.
And maybe Melvin Spears, too, if defensive end Drew Ott can't go after his moped collided with a Buick that cut in front of him Monday.
Scherff has had Boettger under his wing for some time. They were roommates over the summer and during fall camp. Both played quarterback and tight end in high school.
Boettger made his debut Saturday against Ball State, filling in for two series of the second quarter after Scherff was banged up. Monday night, after Scherff and teammate Andrew Donnal shot their bows to prepare for the coming deer season, the bad news arrived. Scherff needed surgery.
"Of course he was bummed, as anyone would be," said Donnal, who became close friends with Scherff when the two rehabbed season-ending injuries together in 2012. "But he had a great attitude towards everything. He wanted to get it over with and get back to playing football."
Donnal said the Hawkeyes will "roll with the punches" without Scherff.
With him, the running game hasn't been rolling anyone through the first two weeks of the season. Wide receiver Tevaun Smith and quarterback Jake Rudock have been the team's leading rushers in the first two games. The Hawkeyes are averaging a below-their-standards 132 yards on the ground.
Ferentz's team looked more like one coached by Don "Air" Coryell against Ball State, throwing the ball 55 times. Last season against Iowa State, the Hawkeyes ran it a season-high 60 times.
The ground game won that Iowa State game, and it has been as much part of the Ferentz legacy as "Next Man In." Against the Cyclones, a team that has allowed 267 yards a game, Iowa is going to have to ground and pound to win.
"Hopefully those things will start to show up as we go along," Ferentz said. "But I'm hardly ready to hit the panic button."
A season ago, Mark Weisman was a black-and-gold sledgehammer against Iowa State. He carried the ball a career-high 35 times for 148 yards. That gave him 85 carries and 425 yards through three games, 10 carries more than any other FBS back at the time.
This season? He'll have to carry the ball 69 times for 378 yards Saturday to match his stats through three games a season ago.
Becoming the bullies of the Big Ten again, with or without Scherff, is a must.
"We've got to," Weisman said.
Yes, teams have loaded up with eight in the box and used other tricks to keep the Hawkeyes from running downhill.
But the players will tell you the flaws in their execution are as problematic as the opponent's schematics.
"We think it is an absolutely correctable thing," said Donnal, the starting right tackle. "It comes down to a lot of small details. We're not getting it done with fundamentals, or we're not executing the play properly. It could be one person. Or it could be all five across the front. It could be anyone on the field, of the 11 guys."
One guy won't be on the field: A 6-foot-5, 320-pound future NFL draft pick who was a fixture on preseason all-American teams.
As a redshirt freshman at Iowa, Scherff made the first three starts of his college career. Now it's Boettger's turn.
Next Man In.
Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.