Steadying offensive line key to Iowa's Big Ten success

Chris Cuellar

IOWA CITY, Ia. – Fourteen offensive linemen have found playing time in Iowa’s first three games.

Right tackle Ike Boettger was their lone representative during Tuesday's media gathering, one of three consistent starters speaking for a unit that has struggled early in the 2016 season.

The 6-foot-6 junior from Cedar Falls made no excuses and noted his frustration after a 23-21 loss to North Dakota State last week. Two starters were missing and the Hawkeyes (2-1) had to rely on an odd assortment of in-state talent.

The O-line, historically the strength of the Iowa program, has to figure out a fix before Big Ten play starts Saturday at Rutgers (2-1).

At Iowa, the solutions start up front.

Iowa center James Daniels (No. 78) missed the last two weeks with a knee injury after starting at center against Miami of Ohio.

“It would be nice to have five guys play the entire year, but that’s never happened,” Boettger said. “You’ve got to be ready.”

Getting starters back could steady the line after a shaky nonconference showing.

Center James Daniels and right guard Sean Welsh will be in Iowa’s lineup, coach Kirk Ferentz said, and would fill out the preseason front five that hasn’t played together since early in Week 1 against Miami of Ohio. Their absences might not be as noticeable as if, say, star quarterback C.J. Beathard missed time, but the Hawkeyes have felt it in the trenches.

Daniels missed the last two weeks with a knee injury and Welsh was out in the physical loss to the Bison because of an ankle issue.

“There are certain positions that would affect a game plan, certainly, and we’d alter and tweak,” Ferentz said Tuesday. “But not typically with linemen.

“I expect them back, but the next time somebody gets hurt, then somebody has got to step in there because the cavalry is not coming. We’ve got our team. Our team is set.”

Iowa used 10 different offensive linemen in the 45-21 win over Miami, with Ross Reynolds, Brett Waechter and Dalton Ferguson joining redshirt sophomores Lucas LeGrand and Keegan Render in cleanup duty. The Week 2 rout over Iowa State followed a similar pattern as Steve Ferentz, Landan Paulsen, Ryan Ward and Mitch Keppy logged minutes behind the starters.

LeGrand and Render were the Week 3 replacements for Daniels and Welsh, but the starting lineup left a lot to be desired against the NDSU front seven. Case in point: 14 rushes for -7 yards after halftime and a missed blitz that forced Beathard’s pick-six.

“Any time you have your entire team ready, with Sean, Keegan, Lucas and James back, it helps you,” Beathard said.

“No matter who is in there, you expect them to do their job.”

Boettger and last year’s tackles Cole Croston and Boone Myers were supposed to solidify the balanced attack Iowa fans have seen in flashes this September. Replacing NFL rookies Austin Blythe and Jordan Walsh has been easier said than done, and the unit ESPN analyst Ed Cunningham ranked No. 1 in the country before the season is still trying to find success.

Can its first-ever meeting with Rutgers become a confidence-building Big Ten win?

“It’s great going into the game knowing we’re going to have James back,” Iowa running back Akrum Wadley said. “He’s a great athlete, but we’re still going to be ready. If he can’t, then LeGrand steps up and we should still be good.”

This season’s raw statistics look fine: 4.9 yards per carry, 357 total yards per game, eight rushing touchdowns and seven passing touchdowns.

But costly lapses have already been cashed in by Miami and NDSU, and Rutgers head coach Chris Ash counts the defensive line as his strong position group.

“I’m expecting both Sean and James to be back in there, but if they’re not, then the guys that are in there have to get it done,” Ferentz said. “And hopefully they play at a better level this week than they did last week.”

Will the big bodies work out their struggles in the Big Ten opener?

Boettger is trusting better communication and forgetting the FCS defeat can overcome problems at a traditionally powerful position.

It’s Iowa, after all.

“We have to get back on the horse,” Boettger said. “One game doesn’t define our season.”

The Hawkeyes offensive line, from left, Ike Boettger, James Daniels, Sean Welsh, Boone Myers, and Cole Croston pose for a portrait during media day on Saturday, August 6, 2016 in Iowa City.

IOWA (2-1) at RUTGERS (2-1)

Where: High Point Solutions Stadium, Piscataway, N.J.

Time/TV: 11 a.m., ESPN2 (Beth Mowins, Anthony Becht, Rocky Boiman)

Line: Iowa by 13

Weather: High of 81 degrees during the game, with cloudy skies before kickoff. SE wind 10 mph with morning precipitation possible.