Akrum Wadley the latest clutch sub for bruised Hawkeyes

Chad Leistikow
Iowa Hawkeyes running back Akrum Wadley (25) runs in for a touch down during the first half of the game against the Northwestern Wildcats  at Ryan Field.

EVANSTON, Ill. — What does it mean when your next, next, next man in rushes for 204 yards and four touchdowns in a Big Ten Conference road win over a ranked opponent?

That you’ve got a pretty good team. Maybe a really good team.

No. 17 and hobbled, Iowa overcame yet another major injury to throttle 20th-ranked Northwestern 40-10 on Saturday and entrench itself as the favorite to win the Big Ten West.

WATCH: Hawkeyes celebrate win with fans at Ryan Field

Akrum Wadley could succeed teammate Jordan Canzeri, who did not return after a first-quarter ankle sprain, as Big Ten offensive player of the week. The 5-foot-11, 185-pound sophomore dashed and glided and never fumbled on his way to 26 carries, 204 yards and a school-record-tying four touchdowns.

“A couple of his cuts, you’re just like, ‘Whoa,’” Iowa linebacker Cole Fisher said. “When you get those younger guys to step up when you need them, that’s when you know that you’ve got a really special team on your hands.”

Fisher said it; is it time everyone did? This might be a really special team.

Brown: 'Whatever it takes' defines this 2015 Iowa football team

It’s a team that is now 7-0 for the fifth time in school history (1921, 1922, 1985 and 2009) and is 3-0 in Big Ten play after recording a second road win over a ranked team in 15 days. The road to the Big Ten West title game goes through Iowa City, with three of Iowa’s next four games at Kinnick Stadium before the Black Friday season-ender at Nebraska.

National pundits will probably continue to swipe at Iowa’s schedule the rest of the way (ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit on College GameDay called it “embarrassing”), but there’s no apology necessary about wins over Pittsburgh (5-1), Wisconsin (5-2) and now Northwestern (5-2).

It’s no small accomplishment to win by 30 on the road against a team that held No. 15 Stanford and No. 25 Duke to a combined 16 points.

“We’re not really thinking about the broader picture, about what kind of message we’re sending other teams,” said Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard, who battled through a groin injury to improve to 8-0 as a starter. “We just know we wanted to come out and get after Northwestern.”

And the Hawkeyes did just that, with Wadley being Saturday’s poster child for redemption and perseverance.

Wadley entered the season as Iowa’s No. 4 running back, behind LeShun Daniels Jr. (who remained out with a sprained ankle), Canzeri (who rushed for 256 yards a week ago) and Derrick Mitchell Jr.

“Just been grinding, day in and day out,” Wadley said. “Today was a great day for me. It just paid off.”

Wadley racked up his big day behind a line that was missing both starting tackles. You may remember it was then-unknown Wadley who broke out a year ago against Northwestern — 15 carries for 106 yards. But he fell out of favor with the coaching staff for fumbling and weight-control issues, and he wondered if he’d get another major chance.

In August, Iowa running backs coach Chris White said Wadley’s inability to maintain his weight at 185 was hurting his ability to hold onto the ball.

Saturday, Wadley held on tight for 26 carries, showing right away he was waiting for this moment.

STATUS REPORT: Iowa wins physically, and on scoreboard

After Canzeri’s left ankle got rolled on, Wadley gained 6 yards on his first carry. Then on the first play of the second quarter, he sprung around the left side for a 35-yard touchdown run and a 9-0 Iowa lead. By the third quarter, he became the seventh player in Hawkeye history with four touchdowns in a game, tripling his career total to six.

“Oh, man, coach White. I can just hear him every time I’m back there about to get the ball, I can hear him in my head — high and tight, high and tight,” Wadley said. “I knew this game would probably either make me or break me. It worked out in my favor.”

Wadley, a Newark, N.J., native, said he’s been talking with his parents daily. He’s been encouraged to stick with the program. He knows he needs to eat more — two trays of food instead of one, he joked Saturday. He got back up to 185 last week, he said, a key benchmark in earning trust from Iowa’s coaches. Now, he needs to stay there.

The way he ran Saturday and with Canzeri’s timetable for recovery uncertain, he might be a big factor in the plans the rest of the way. After a bye week, Iowa plays Maryland on Oct. 31.

“I made huge strides at my weight last week. I’ve just got to keep eating,” Wadley said. “The biggest thing is to eat. Eat, eat, and hold onto the ball. That’s the only thing that’s stopping me.”

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