Brown: If Iowa can't buoy slumping rush defense, look out
COLLEGE PARK, Md. – When I looked at Iowa's future football schedule two weeks ago, I saw a bunch of run-first teams coming down the pike and figured that would play right into the Hawkeyes' hands.
Iowa's rush defense was ranked seventh nationally at the time, allowing an average of 93.2 yards through five games. It was clearly the strength of this team.
Now, my assumptions are under review. In a victory over Indiana and Saturday's loss at Maryland, those teams combined for 528 rushing yards and a per-carry average of 6.2. The first five teams averaged 2.9 yards per carry.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said that trend is troubling, but wouldn't go so far as calling it a crisis. Call it what you want. If Iowa can't stop the run in the weeks ahead, bowl eligibility might be the highlight of the season.
The Hawkeyes have allowed six rushing touchdowns over the last two games, and eight for the season. Last year's team allowed eight the entire campaign.
Three of the remaining five games are against foes ranked in the top 25 nationally in rushing. Wisconsin is No. 1 at 343 yards a game. Nebraska is sixth at 293.6 yards. Minnesota is 25th, averaging 222.4 yards.
The Hoosiers are No. 7. And Tevin Coleman, the nation's second-leading rusher, accounted for 219 by himself against the Hawkeyes. Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon leads the nation at 174.3 yards a game. Ameer Abdullah of Nebraska is fourth, at 146.3. And David Cobb of Minnesota is fifth, at 144.7.
I give Ferentz a thumbs-up for his frankness about the poor effort turned in by players -- and coaches -- after Saturday's loss. I don't envy the challenge he faces in the weeks ahead.
Next up is Northwestern, a team that has traditionally given Ferentz teams fits, on Nov. 1. The Wildcats are just 102nd in the country in rushing at 130.2 yards a game. But nothing can be taken for granted. Maryland is the nation's 84th-best rushing team at 150.6 yards after running for more than two football fields against the Hawkeyes. Of those 212 yards, 172 came in the first half.
Maybe as troubling as Iowa's rush defense is its own inability to run the ball. The Hawkeyes are averaging just 146.3 yards a game. That's down more than 30 yards from a season ago. Iowa rushed for just 116 yards in 31 carries against Maryland, a team that entered the game 13th in the Big Ten in rush defense at 212 yards.
"Very disappointing," Iowa left tackle Brandon Scherff said. "We didn't do our job up front. Especially me."
But the issues don't rest solely with poor execution up front. Iowa's lack of a home-run hitter at running back has also impeded the effectiveness of the offense. Numerous times, plays have been blocked well enough for big gains if the Hawkeyes had a back who could get downfield in a hurry. Mark Weisman, who is 10th on Iowa's career rushing chart with 2,217 yards, hits the hole with power but doesn't have flashing speed.
Jordan Canzeri showed a burst last season, but injuries have slowed him down. Damon Bullock is at his best as a receiver, in open space. LeShun Daniels seems to be a Weisman-Canzeri hybrid.
Jonathan Parker has speed, but his 5-foot-8, 180-pound frame isn't built for the pounding a running back takes. Parker's 60-yard touchdown run on a jet sweep against Indiana is Iowa's only rushing gain of more than 45 yards over the past three seasons. The Hoosiers' Coleman had scoring runs of 45, 69 and 83 yards against the Hawkeyes.
Iowa's run game did show an occasional spark before offensive coordinator Greg Davis went pass-heavy in Saturday's second half. The Hawkeyes rushed the ball 19 times in the first half to just 12 times in the second half. They passed it 13 times in the first half, 43 in the second.
That equals 56 passes. And one telling loss.
Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.