IOWA CITY, Ia. – Iowa may go another football season without a 1,000-yard rusher. But oddly enough, that’s actually become a positive development.
The No. 8-ranked Hawkeyes’ top four running backs have been dealt some kind of injury this season – the latest being Akrum Wadley with a minor ankle sprain that kept him out of Tuesday’s practice.
But Wadley should be good to go in Saturday’s 7 p.m. home game against Minnesota, giving offensive coordinator Greg Davis full (or nearly full) disposal of the “Four Deadly Horsemen” in his play-calling. (That’s the moniker Jordan Canzeri came up with for the quartet of himself, Wadley, LeShun Daniels Jr. and Derrick Mitchell Jr.)
“It’s not going to matter who’s in there,” senior center Austin Blythe said. “I think we’re going to run the ball, or try to run the ball anyway. Any guy who comes in there, they’ve proven they can run the ball.”
Of the “Horsemen” – all possessing slightly different skill sets – Canzeri emerged in Week 2 as Kirk Ferentz’s most trusted and primary ball carrier. The fifth-year senior with an injury history was well on his way to becoming the Hawkeyes’ first 1,000-yard rusher since Marcus Coker in 2011 and just the third in the last 10 years.
Canzeri has a team-high 698 yards on the ground – including 256 against Illinois – and will return to the lineup this week after missing 2¾ games with a high-ankle sprain he suffered Oct. 17 against Northwestern. That injury paved the way for sophomores Wadley (426 yards, including a team-best 391 in Big Ten Conference play) and Mitchell (214 total yards on 20 rushes and seven receptions after missing the first three games) to emerge.
And Daniels, the No. 1 guy coming out of fall camp, is finally back to full health after missing three games and being slowed in three others with a high-ankle sprain. He carried 23 times for 78 yards in Saturday’s 35-27 win at Indiana.
So, how in the world will Iowa juggle all four guys and keep them happy?
“Everybody keeps asking how we're going to rotate. It's easy,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “The guys that are healthy play, so they've helped us out with their little tweaks, injuries that we've had.”
If Wadley (5-foot-11, 185 pounds) is 100 percent, it’d be hard to keep him out of the mix. He’s averaging a team-best 6.9 yards a carry and has shown electric explosiveness since Canzeri went down, including 204 yards in relief at Northwestern and a 65-yard touchdown on the game’s second play at Indiana.
Daniels (6-0, 225) has shown he can grind out tough yards and bowl over defenders. In a four-back rotation, he could be the leading red-zone option after recording two short touchdown runs against Indiana.
Canzeri (5-9, 192) can do it all, but at minimum he’ll probably see time as the third-down back against the Golden Gophers. He’s been Iowa’s best running back at blitz pickup, and he’s got 17 receptions for 193 yards.
Mitchell (6-1, 212) could see time in third-down passing situations if Canzeri is thrust into the featured role instead of Wadley. Iowa probably isn’t going to overdo it with Canzeri, no matter how badly he’s itching to get back on the field. Teammate Jordan Walsh divulged Tuesday that Canzeri has been a terror in the weight room while waiting for his ankle to heal.
It’s a good problem to have. The versatility, Daniels said, “makes us more flexible, and I think it helps us create more explosive plays.” Quarterback C.J. Beathard agreed that his passing effectiveness at Indiana was because he was able to sell opposing linebackers with play-action – a product of a strong running game.
Helping Iowa’s situation, Ferentz said jealousy hasn’t crept in at a position where that can be the case – with a lot of guys wanting “theirs.” Wadley said everyone understands their place.
“We’ve just got to be able to trust each other. Whoever’s in, they’re going to do their best,” Wadley said. “It’s always a good feeling to know you’ve got somebody to back you up when you get tired. We’re all going to get our time. We'll get our carries.”
Matchup: Iowa (9-0, 5-0 Big Ten) vs. Minnesota (4-5, 1-4)
When, where: 7:12 p.m., Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City
TV: Big Ten Network (Announcers: Kevin Kugler, Matt Millen)
The line: Iowa is favored by 12.5
News and notes: Minnesota on Wednesday announced it had removed the interim tag from Tracy Claeys, giving him a three-year contract through the 2018 season. He took over after Jerry Kill’s sudden retirement and will make $1.4 million next season. … Saturday’s game is sold out, but plenty of tickets remain for Iowa’s home finale vs. Purdue. … ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit said this Tuesday night about Iowa’s No. 5 College Football Playoff ranking. “Their fan base maybe got ahold of the committee because they have been very frustrated with a lot of people not giving this team the recognition they deserve. For Iowa this is huge news ... If Iowa wins out, they will be one of the (Final Four) teams; it is as simple as that.”