Brown: Iowa's success goes through running game

Rick Brown

IOWA CITY, Ia. — In the spirit of the 2016 Iowa caucuses, we give you LeShun Daniels Jr.

Iowa’s junior running back would win some popularity polls after rushing for 195 yards and three touchdowns against Minnesota last week. But he needs a lesson in the art of persuasion.

Daniels was itching to play when the Hawkeyes visited Northwestern Oct. 17, after missing the previous two games with an ankle injury. As he warmed up, Daniels was in the ear of running backs coach Chris White.

“I’m good to go,” Daniels told White. “Go in there and tell coach (Kirk) Ferentz I’m good, I can play."

It didn't happen.

"They told me before the game I wasn’t playing. I was trying to convince them. They weren’t having it.”

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Daniels did his talking with his legs Saturday, contributing to a running game that has played a significant role in No. 6 Iowa’s 10-0 start. A victory against Purdue Saturday would punch Iowa’s ticket to the Big Ten Championship game Dec. 5.

And the running game just might get them there. Purdue is last in the Big Ten in rushing defense, allowing 209.6 yards per game. Iowa averages 211.7 yards a game, with 30 rushing touchdowns that ranks fifth nationally.

An Iowa team hasn’t averaged this many yards on the ground since 2002, the last time the Hawkeyes have been ranked as high as sixth in the AP poll.

Why the big turnaround? It starts with giving offensive line coach Brian Ferentz a second title. He’s also Iowa’s run-game coordinator. And he has the running game clicking in unison.

“He knows what plays will be great, and the schemes and everything to get us in the best position to run the ball and be successful,” running back Jordan Canzeri said.

The offensive line has made tremendous strides. This was an area of great concern when the season started, especially with the loss of tackles Brandon Scherff and Andrew Donnal to the NFL. Both have started as rookies.

In came a pair of untested redshirt sophomores, Boone Myers and Ike Boettger. And when they got hurt, another unproven guy named Cole Croston was next man in.

Anyone who saw Iowa defensive end Drew Ott manhandle Myers during Iowa’s public scrimmage Aug. 15 had good reason to worry.

“The best thing that could have happened to me was going against Drew,” Myers said. “It was a big step, it wasn’t just another notch up the ladder.”

The development of the tackles has cemented a line with a rock in the middle in senior center Austin Blythe. He’s started 41 straight games. Senior right guard Jordan Walsh, with 34 career starts, is playing the best football of his career. Sophomore left guard Sean Welsh has an all-Big Ten future.

The return of fullbacks Macon Plewa and Adam Cox after an injury-filled 2014 has played a part, too, as has improved blocking from the wide receivers and tight ends.

Iowa backs have combined for eight 100-yard rushing games this season, compared to two a year ago. This is the first time an FBS team has had three backs go for at least 195 yards since LSU in 1997. Canzeri had 256 yards against Illinois, Wadley 204 against Northwestern.

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Daniels, Canzeri and Akrum Wadley have all missed games because of injuries. Put them together and you’d have a back with 1,714 yards who would be drawing a bead on Shonn Greene’s school record of 1,850.

Add third-down back Derrick Mitchell Jr., and you’ve got as deep a backfield as Iowa has had in eons. But it takes more than legs to be successful.

“The offensive line has done an excellent job,” Daniels said. “And the fullbacks and receivers have really helped our running game.”

Spoken like a true politician.

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

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