Brown: Hawkeyes need 100-yard rusher, more C.J. Beathard
Asked this week if Iowa's inability to consistently run the ball was due to blocking issues or something else, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said, "If I knew that, we'd probably be running the ball better."
That's not the answer the natives wanted to hear. They're a restless bunch, and rightfully so. The Hawkeyes' lack of production on the ground — 131 yards a game ranks 92nd nationally — is troubling. Not just for Saturday's 11 a.m. game against Pittsburgh at Heinz Field, but beyond.
Iowa hasn't had a 100-yard rusher since Jordan Canzeri at Purdue, seven games ago. That's the longest void since a seven-game stretch of the 2007 season. Now comes Pittsburgh, with a defense that ranks ninth nationally in rush defense at 77.3 yards a game.
Iowa hasn't rushed for more than 151 yards in a game this season. The Hawkeyes had one person go for more than that twice last season, and three times in 2012.
That running game will have to show a pulse at Pitt, or Iowa will enter Big Ten play with a 2-2 record. On the flip side, the defense will be challenged by a downhill running game. The Panthers are fourth nationally in rushing offense at 344.5 yards a game. Iowa is sixth nationally in rushing defense at 65.7 yards a game.
"I think we've done a pretty decent job," Iowa defensive end Drew Ott said. "But we haven't been tested by a run-heavy team like this."
The Panthers have had at least 51 rushing attempts in every game this season. Only one Iowa opponent, Ball State, has had more than 26 carries. Leading Pittsburgh's ground game is James Conner, a 250-pounder who is fourth nationally in rushing at 181.3 yards a game.
"You've got to get him stopped before he gets going," Iowa linebacker Quinton Alston said, "and make him run laterally instead of downhill."
Iowa's running game has been limited by teams putting eight players in the box and daring Jake Rudock to throw downfield.
That has been a winning formula for Iowa's opponents. The Hawkeyes haven't shown much of a vertical passing game. If that stays in mothballs, so, likely, will the running game.
A natural solution would be to roll backup quarterback C.J. Beathard out there to spell Rudock for a series or two. Beathard has the home-run arm that could loosen up defenses — assuming the receivers can get open. Let's see a pinch-hitter.
Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.