Harty: Iowa's running woes have fans, coaches perplexed

Pat Harty
Iowa City Press-Citizen

OK, so we have a maddening mystery on our hands, although a 2-0 mystery sure beats 1-1 or 0-2.

Imagine the meltdown on social media and the blame game that would've occurred if the Iowa football team had lost either of its first two games against Northern Iowa on Aug. 31 and Ball State this past Saturday.

It's still going on to a certain extent because of the bizarre and frustrating way in which Iowa has reached 2-0.

Even Nostradamus would've had a hard time predicting that after two games Iowa's leading rusher would be junior quarterback Jake Rudock with just 53 net yards. It's not that unusual for a quarterback to lead a team in rushing, especially after just two games, unless you're talking about the Iowa Hawkeyes under veteran coach Kirk Ferentz where running between the tackles is a way of life.

In Iowa's case, it's bizarre and disturbing because at some point this season – perhaps in Saturday's much-anticipated showdown with Iowa State – the Hawkeyes will have to do what they do best to prevail.

"We're going to really have to look hard at that," Ferentz said of the running game after Saturday's 17-13 come-from-behind victory over Ball State.

That's quite a statement coming from the usually tight-lipped and even-keeled Ferentz. The fact that he feels a need to a take hard look at his running game after facing two decisive underdogs at home is a concern.

It's also a mystery, though, because wasn't Iowa supposed to have arguably the Big Ten's best offensive line led by the nation's top left tackle in 6-foot-5, 320-pound senior Brandon Scherff?

Ferentz said after both games this season that the opponent went to great lengths to stop Iowa's rushing attack. If that is the case, you'd think there would have been more opportunities to stretch defenses by throwing down field.

It seems as if Iowa's first two opponents did a better job of asserting their will against the Hawkeyes than vice versa. Why? That's the mystery.

Nothing against Northern Iowa or Ball State, but they shouldn't be dictating things to a Big Ten team that has Iowa's supposed upside and potential.

What's ironic is that so often last season fans, and some of us in the media, complained that Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis relied too much on the power running of 240-pound Mark Weisman instead of devising a rotation with the other running backs in order to keep defenses off balance.

Davis has switched his approach this season as evidenced by Weisman only having 16 carries after two games for 47 net rushing yards. Weisman had 50 carries and rushed for 280 yards in the first two games last season.

I'm all for mixing things up on offense, partly to keep Weisman fresh because he did ultimately breakdown in the previous two seasons after heavy usage.

But there is something to be said for allowing a running back to find a rhythm or get into a groove. None of the Iowa running backs have more than 16 carries after two games.

It seems as if Davis is constantly searching for somebody with a hot hand to carry the football. Junior Jordan Canzeri showed signs of being that person in the third quarter against Ball State after ripping off runs of seven and 17 yards. But he only finished with five carries overall, which are two fewer than Rudock had against Ball State.

"We're going to have to figure this out because clearly we're not running the ball as effectively as we need to," Ferentz said. "It's something we have to revisit (Sunday) and think about between now and next Tuesday before we start practicing again."

Iowa's 2004 squad defied the odds by winning the Big Ten title and finishing 10-2 despite having a woeful rushing attack, caused in large part by a rash of injuries at the running back position.

But that team also had arguably the Big Ten's top quarterback that season in sophomore Drew Tate, along with a suffocating defense in which almost all the starters moved on to the NFL.

Tate was magic in the pocket with his ability to improvise and extend plays. That was crucial because defenses eventually knew that Iowa was mostly one dimensional on offense. And yet, Tate and his cohorts figured out ways to be effective on offense, sometimes, they were even explosive despite getting hardly any support from a rushing attack.

To put Iowa's 2004 rushing woes in perspective, fifth-string walk-on running back Sam Brownlee led the team in rushing that season with 227 yards on 94 carries. His season total for yards that season would only rank sixth on Iowa's single-game rushing list.

The 2004 squad is one of four Iowa teams to win at least 10 games under Ferentz, who is in his 16th season as the Iowa head coach. However, the other three teams in 2002, 2003 and 2009 all were fueled by strong rushing attacks.

We might look back at the first two games and shake our heads, much like we did in 2009 when Iowa needed a miracle to defeat Northern Iowa 17-16 in the season opener, blocking back-to-back field goals in the closing seconds to protect what ended as an 11-2 record.

Success rarely has come easy for Iowa under Ferentz. It's a week-by-week grind that produces a wide range of physical and mental challenges.

Injuries always are a concern, given how fragile Iowa's depth is more times than not. Prayers were answered this past Saturday when Scherff returned from an apparent leg injury after missing one series in the second quarter.

Now it's time for Scherff and his cohorts on the offensive line to end this mystery and live up to their potential.

Reach Pat Harty at 339-7370 or