Iowa, Daniels Jr., want big plays to count vs. Wildcats

Chris Cuellar

IOWA CITY, Ia. — If the Hawkeyes should have the first snap of Saturday’s second half, LeShun Daniels Jr. wants the ball. Again.

Iowa’s 225-pound running back has had two long carries whistled back in the last two weeks because of painful penalties. He’s not discouraged as Northwestern comes to Kinnick Stadium for an 11 a.m. kickoff (ESPNU), but the Hawkeyes expressed regret this week that the big runs were ruined by flags.

It’s October in the Big Ten Conference and those plays have to count.

“There’s no way that can happen every week, right?” Daniels Jr., asked after last Saturday’s 14-7 win at Rutgers.

The senior captain streaked 62 yards on the first play of the third quarter against North Dakota State on Sept. 17 only to trudge back following a holding flag on tight end George Kittle.

Iowa running back LeShun Daniels, Jr. dives in for a touchdown during the Hawkeyes' game against Iowa State at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016.

Iowa (3-1, 1-0) was up 14-7 at the time and Daniels Jr.’s run would have set up first-and-goal. Instead, the offense was forced to punt and NDSU tied the game on the next series. With the big play wiped off the box score, the Hawkeyes would finish with just 34 rushing yards in the game.

History repeated itself at Rutgers.

Daniels Jr. broke free again for a 75-yard touchdown run that would have put the Hawkeyes up two scores in their Big Ten opener, but a flag on right tackle Ike Boettger for an illegal block pulled the points off the High Point Solutions Stadium scoreboard.

Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz argued against the low-blocking rule after the game. By Tuesday, his attention was turned to the offensive errors.

“I’d be really happy if we could eliminate some of the mistakes that have kept us from having some big plays,” Ferentz said. “That’s our focus right now, is cleaning those kinds of things up.”

Northwestern (1-3, 0-1) is allowing 177.5 rushing yards per game — only better than Iowa in Big Ten rankings — and nearly 4.5 yards per carry. Nebraska gashed the Wildcats for 310 yards and 12 first downs on the ground last week, leaving room for optimism in the Iowa backfield.

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Saturday could be the big play opportunity Daniels Jr. and Akrum Wadley have been waiting for. Assuming flags don’t fly on to the field.

“We kind of have a one play at a time (attitude),” Iowa left tackle Cole Croston said. “If something bad happens, you’ve got keep the same mentality and focus. If something good happens, same mentality and focus. We want to go out there and be able to keep a level head and just keep working and grinding.”

Wadley has rushed 37 times for 274 yards and four touchdowns this season. His 7.4 yards per carry average would be bested by Daniels Jr. if the second-half sparks weren’t extinguished.

Daniels Jr. has rushed 52 times for 301 yards and three touchdowns, marks that very nearly could have been raised to 438 yards and four touchdowns. That’s 8.1 yards per rush.

LeShun Daniels had a 75-yard touchdown run pulled back because of a penalty at Rutgers last Saturday, the second such big play flag in as many games.

“I told LeShun he’s still a possession back since those things got stricken from the record,” Ferentz joked on Tuesday. “Yeah, didn’t want to ruin his reputation.”

Iowa’s plan now is to run the ball without wrecking its own progress. Breaking open those carries could mean a second straight Big Ten win.

“Things like that are going to happen and you’ve got to be able to adjust and you’ve got to bounce back from it,” Daniels said. “You’ve got to go out and make more plays.”

NORTHWESTERN (1-3, 0-1) at IOWA (3-1, 1-0)

Where: Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City

Time/TV: 11:01 a.m., ESPNU (Eamon McAneney, John Congemi)

Line: Iowa by 13.5

Weather: Cloudy, high of 65, winds from north at 10 mph