In his first career start, the junior rushed for 123 yards on 26 carries.
IOWA CITY, Ia. — The caveat must be stated: It’s only one game against an FCS opponent. But based on Iowa’s first Saturday of the college football season, its running game is alive and well.
Head coach Kirk Ferentz read accounts of how that aspect of his 17th Hawkeye offense appeared to be on life support on three previous Saturdays — the April 11 open practice at Valley Stadium, the April 25 spring game and the Aug. 15 Kids Day scrimmage.
“I've read about our shortcoming in the running game,” Ferentz said following Saturday’s 31-14 season-opening win over Illinois State, “for obvious reasons.”
The Hawkeyes looked familiar scheme-wise in the first game since Ferentz’s son, Brian, was appointed run-game coordinator. But they do look different (in a good way) personnel-wise, and that begins with the complementary usage of LeShun Daniels Jr. and Jordan Canzeri.
Both were slowed by injuries last season, but when healthy as they were Saturday they provide a burst the Iowa running game lacked the previous three years with converted fullback Mark Weisman in the featured role. Daniels called Saturday's game "just a little taste" of what's possible from the Hawkeye running game.
“It’s really going to be a positive for us if we can both stay healthy and continue to make plays,” Daniels said after he and Canzeri accounted for 241 yards on 35 combined touches against Illinois State.
The key word there is “if,” considering the rash of injuries that struck some premier college stars in Week 1. That list includes Pittsburgh all-American James Conner, who rushed for 155 yards against Iowa last fall but won’t play Sept. 19 at Kinnick Stadium. He was declared out for the season Monday with a knee injury.
Chad Leistikow and Rick Brown break down Iowa's 31-14 win
By the end of Saturday’s first quarter at Kinnick Stadium, Daniels had more rushing yards (54) than he did all of last season (49). In his first career start, the 6-foot, 225-pound junior finished with 26 carries for 123 yards — mostly running between the tackles.
Canzeri, meanwhile, was used more in open space. The 5-9, 192-pound senior wound up with four receptions for a career-high 90 yards — 51 coming from a designed screen and another 21 off an underhand shovel pass from quarterback C.J. Beathard. He also rushed for 28 yards on five carries with his first touchdown since Nov. 9, 2013 at Purdue.
“(I’ve) just really been pleased with both LeShun and Jordan Canzeri, what we've seen them do, the way they've practiced in spring practice, this camp,” Kirk Ferentz said. “So I'm very hopeful. I think they complement each other well, and hopefully that we can just keep building on that.”
A 1-yard loss by Daniels was Iowa’s only rush attempt out of 44 that went backward. For the game, the Hawkeyes ran for 210 yards and passed for 221.
“When we can run the ball and gain positive yards on every play,” Daniels said, “it opens up the play-action game and the pass game. It helps us stay balanced on offense.”
Daniels hasn't played a down against Iowa's next opponent, Iowa State (3:45 p.m. Saturday, Fox), so this will be the Cyclones' first taste of the Daniels-Canzeri tandem.
“They’ve got a great 1-2 punch, if you will, in the backfield," Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads said Monday. “It will be a formidable rush offense that we are matched up against.”
The Hawkeyes' offensive line was a big question mark entering the season, but it passed the Illinois State test. Iowa State looks to present a more difficult challenge after recording 13 tackles for loss in a 31-7 opening win against Northern Iowa.
“After all the speculation of how this was going to be, we went out there and proved it (against Illinois State) that we’re going to run the ball,” said Beathard, who rushed eight times (including four QB sneaks) for 26 yards and two touchdowns. “We’re going to do what we do. It was a great way to start the season.”