Brown: Is Iowa O-line's sudden resurgence a tease or a trend?

Rick Brown

Iowa offensive lineman Andrew Donnal celebrates a touchdown against Ball State on Saturday, Sept. 6, 2014, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa.

IOWA CITY, Ia. -- Iowa's offensive line finally clicked against Northwestern.

"Sometimes, things take time," center Tommy Gaul said.

There's double meaning in those four words. Gaul, a rarely-used fifth-year senior, got his big chance when starting right guard Jordan Walsh injured an ankle on the first play from scrimmage against Indiana Oct. 11. Gaul was the next man in, taking over at center as Austin Blythe rotated to Walsh's spot.

"Going into the season, you never know what's going to happen," said Gaul, a former West Des Moines Dowling standout. "You've got to be ready to go."

Gaul has been the starting center ever since. Iowa piled up 221 yards rushing and 483 yards of total offense, both season highs, in a 48-7 victory over Northwestern last week that kept it in the thick of the Big Ten's West Division race.

But one question lingers heading to Minnesota on Saturday – was this a tease or a sign the Hawkeyes' offensive line means business the rest of the way? If the answer is yes, that divisional sprint will be very interesting.

"The challenge is not to be satisfied," right tackle Andrew Donnal said. "We were happy with what we did. But you can't be stagnant and stay at the same level of play. We made mistakes Saturday. Tons of them. If we improve those mistakes, there's so much more improvement to be made."

Last season, the same five players started every game in the offensive line – Brandon Scherff and Brett Van Sloten at tackle, Conor Boffeli and Walsh at guard and Blythe at center. Boffeli and Van Sloten graduated, but the offensive line was expected to be a strength of this team.

And yet the running game struggled to get in a rhythm until Saturday, when the Hawkeyes rolled up their highest rushing total in 11 games. Was it Iowa's good play or Northwestern's lack of such? We'll get some clues in the Twin Cities.

"They have two NFL players at tackle, and there is no doubt about that," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "Scherff and the rest of the offensive line pretty much had their way with us all day long."

The 6-foot-5, 320-pound Scherff, named a Lombardi Award semifinalist this week, is sixth on Mel Kiper's NFL Draft Big Board. Donnal and his 6-7, 305-pound frame are also getting some attention. It's the three positions between them that have been juggled.

I can't image that heading into this season, offensive line coach Brian Ferentz would have walked up to his father, Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz, and predicted that heading into the ninth game of the season, Gaul would be the Hawkeyes' starting center and Blythe the left guard.

"I've said repeatedly that for us to have a good season we have to have some good stories," Kirk Ferentz said. "And Tommy is unfolding as one of the better stories we've had."

Blythe, a junior, is a pretty good story, too. He might be the unsung hero of this offensive line. He started 19 consecutive games at center. It all changed when Walsh got hurt against the Hoosiers.

"When I saw Tommy coming in, that's when I knew I was going to right guard," Blythe said.

Blythe stayed at right guard through the Maryland game. But during the bye week that followed, he was moved to left guard in place of freshman Sean Welsh, and that's where he started against Northwestern.

One season, three positions. No big deal, Blythe said, other than changing which hand you have on the field when you take your stance. Blythe started nine games as right guard as a redshirt freshman.

"He kind of moves around without any problem," Kirk Ferentz said. "It doesn't seem to really affect him a great deal."

It was during the second October bye week, Blythe said, when the offensive line got on the same page.

"It was just a product of how we practiced over the two weeks," Blythe said. "We're just going to have to practice that way this week to make sure we can consistently do it again."

The Sunday film session was proof that Saturday's positive post-game vibe was fact, not fiction. The film also showed there's plenty of work to be done.

"This week is huge for us," Blythe said.

And huge for Iowa's West Division title hopes. One game, and one block, at a time.

Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.