Iowa prepares for a tough, evenly-matched Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship. David Scrivner/Iowa City Press-Citizen
IOWA CITY, Ia. — On the all-Big Ten Conference ballot, there is no place to vote for a fullback. That’s everything you need to know about how thankless a position it can be.
But for 12-0 Iowa’s chances in Saturday’s Big Ten Conference championship game against 11-1 Michigan State, how seniors Macon Plewa and Adam Cox block could be ever-important.
“We never give the ball to those guys. We throw one pass a year to them,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday. “So, basically, they’re going to line and up and run into somebody and block them. It’s a tough job.”
Running the football against Michigan State at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis will be no easy task. Mark Dantonio’s Spartans held the Big Ten’s top two rushing teams to less than 100 yards (Ohio State, 86 on 29 carries; Indiana, 81 on 23).
“The best we’ve faced,” right guard Jordan Walsh said. “That’s definitely a key of ours.”
Guess who’s ranked third at 203.7 yards a game? That’d be Iowa, which brings a mentality of running the football off the bus. But it could be telling that the Hawkeyes’ lowest rushing output of the season was 105 yards against Pittsburgh — a team coached by former Spartans defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi.
Even if Iowa isn’t able to pop big runs Saturday against a defensive line led by three-time all-Big Ten end Shilique Calhoun, it needs to establish at 3-4 yards a carry on the ground (Iowa averages 4.8).
“Obviously, they have some really dominant pass rushers on the edge,” Cox said. “It’ll be important not to get in third-and-longs, when they can just pin their ears back and get upfield.”
The good news for the Hawkeyes is they’re healthy in the backfield. Even though Jordan Canzeri was the primary carrier in last week’s 28-20 win at Nebraska with 17 carries for 140 yards, Ferentz said that LeShun Daniels Jr. (five carries, two yards in Lincoln) and Akrum Wadley (did not play) would be available and probably deployed. Derrick Mitchell Jr. has been the primary third-down back but hasn’t had a rushing attempt since Nov. 7.
“It’s kind of just who’s hot,” Ferentz said. “And Akrum, he’s got fresh legs. He didn’t do much either last week. We may need everybody.”
Canzeri, though, is the leader of the group he coined as the “Four Deadly Horsemen.” Despite missing most of three games with an ankle injury, Canzeri is 36 yards short of 1,000. The “Horsemen” have combined for 2,140 yards rushing and 29 touchdowns.
The fifth-year senior who has battled through multiple injuries, including ACL surgery after his freshman year, is ready to do whatever it takes on the biggest stage of his career. The winner is practically assured a spot in the College Football Playoff.
The Iowa running back seems to be leading the Four Deadly Horsemen into Indy.
“Put it all on the line, leave nothing on the field,” Canzeri said. “If we win this one, we’ve got a couple weeks before the first playoff game.”
On Friday, as is their night-before-game routine, Canzeri and Cox, Plewa and Drake Kulick — “I believe they’re the best fullbacks in the country,” Canzeri said — will play some cards. Euchre is their game. The partners rotate, but it’s a team-building exercise that has been reflective of the family feel that has led the Hawkeyes to this unlikely spot in the national spotlight.
The next night, a game will take place on national TV (7:17 p.m., Fox) that will be a fullback’s dream.
“Sure, they’re more physical than some of the teams we’ve played this year,” Cox said. “But we’re a pretty physical team this year, too. So it’s going to be fun.”