IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa is bad when the ball stays on the ground.
Statistics say this isn’t an opinion: The Hawkeyes (3-2, 1-1) woke up Sunday morning ranked 95th in the nation in rushing offense and 87th in rushing defense. Northwestern knocked the averages down in Saturday’s 38-31 win, setting off alarms for fans at Kinnick Stadium who have gotten used to Iowa owning the line of scrimmage.
But the Hawkeyes have been uncharacteristically beaten up on the front line through the season's first five games, and that precedent looks to be problematic with tough Big Ten matchups ahead.
“I’m pissed off,” Iowa running back Akrum Wadley said after the divisional upset on Saturday. “It’s frustrating. We don’t lose. We’re not losers.
“They played a great game and outplayed us, but we beat ourselves with mental mistakes on both sides.”
Wadley was part of Iowa’s frustrating output, gaining 35 yards on 14 carries against an aggressive Wildcats (2-3, 1-1) defense. LeShun Daniels Jr. accounted for 72 yards on the ground, but the team total slashed down under two yards per carry after six sacks on quarterback C.J. Beathard.
More coverage from Saturday's loss:
- Iowa 'capable of so much more' in 38-31 loss to Northwestern
- McCarron moves in for VandeBerg despite Iowa’s pass game problems
- Iowa takeaways: The run defense still stinks
- Leistikow: Hawkeyes lose their composure, control of their season
Iowa finished Saturday with 41 rushes for 79 yards. Against a run defense ranked 11th in the Big Ten, the Hawkeyes had their rushing average drop to 143.2 yards per game, which would qualify as their lowest rate since the 4-8 campaign of 2012.
“Every week is a different story — different adventure — and it’s been that way historically,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “We’re trying to shape our identity.
“We’ve had an injury or two, so that modifies things, but it’s going to be a work in progress, and that’s the work in front of us the next six days.”
Center James Daniels and right guard Sean Welsh were back in the starting lineup for the second straight week after injuries sidelined them in nonconference play. That didn’t help the push against Northwestern, as Wadley and Daniels saw their longest runs on Saturday go just nine yards.
Wadley ran in Iowa’s first two touchdowns, but short scores didn’t ease the junior’s stress.
“They were the same play — outside zones — and they were walk-in touchdowns; anybody could have scored those,” Wadley said.
“This is just depressing. Nobody wants to be in the locker room after a game like that. You can hear a pin drop.”
Even with Iowa’s track record of producing NFL offensive linemen, the run game has been up and down during Ferentz’s tenure. The group won double-digit games in 2004 and 2009 despite falling near the bottom of the NCAA in rushing offense. But those squads developed better passing games — left tackle Cole Croston was scorched by Northwestern end Ifeadi Odenigbo on Saturday — and could rely on stout defenses.
Returning seven of the top 10 linemen from last year’s Rose Bowl team and playing without star receiver Matt VandeBerg was supposed to make this offense run-dominant.
“The most frustrating thing for me is the controllable mistakes,” Welsh said. “As individuals, we need to focus on doing our jobs and the nuances of our jobs. Then things will come along.”
Then, there’s that run defense.
The Hawkeyes ranked in the nation’s top 10 for three straight seasons during the program's heydays, between 2002 and 2004. Last year’s unit finished 15th after allowing 121.4 yards per game, even after Stanford’s Rose Bowl romp.
Now? The rushing defense is giving up 182.8 yards per game, the highest average since Ferentz’s first two seasons in 1999 and 2000.
“We take (a lot of) pride in our run defense, and that’s something that we’re going to have to work on throughout this week,” Iowa cornerback Desmond King said. “We need to watch film and correct our mistakes and move on to the next week.”
Justin Jackson paced Northwestern’s 198-yard rushing effort with 171 of his own, including a breakaway 58-yard touchdown in the third quarter to put the visitors ahead, 31-24. The broken tackles and missed assignments were infuriating across the field.
Middle linebacker Josey Jewell was credited with a career-high 16 tackles, but he’ll obviously need more help.
“It’s a focal point for the linebackers,” Jewell said. “We need to do a lot better job filling gaps and helping the (defensive) line out a lot. It goes more on the linebackers than anything. Hopefully we can get better at that throughout the week.”
The rushing reprieve isn’t coming, either. Minnesota is up next, with its 27th ranked rushing offense and 35th ranked rushing defense in the country. Michigan is Iowa’s Nov. 12 opponent and, similarly, comes in at 36th and 24th, respectively. Nebraska and Wisconsin will come to Iowa City with strong units in search of trophies, too.
The Hawkeyes say they’re desperately searching for answers. Some will have to come in the run game for this season to get a positive result.
“Clearly after (Saturday’s) ballgame, everything is up on the board,” Ferentz said. “Everything is open again to discussion. But that’s something for us, as coaches. We’re going to have to find something to get our guys on track a little faster, a little quicker, and that’s a coaches thing.
“That’s also a players thing. We’ve all got to work together, and we will.”
Iowa plays at Minnesota (3-1, 0-1) in Week 6 with an 11 a.m. kickoff set for Saturday.
Power football under Ferentz:
Below are Iowa’s national rankings for rushing offense and rushing defense since Kirk Ferentz became head coach in 1999. The ratings are across Division I-A and FBS programs, according to NCAA archived statistics. Iowa’s rushing margin per game is displayed as YPG +/- in the table (e.g., rushing for 143.2 yards per game while allowing 182.8 rushing yards per game in 2016).
Year Record Rush Off. Rush Def. YPG +/-
1999 1-10 103 114 -153.4
2000 3-9 105 94 -103.4
2001 7-5 40 27 54.6
2002 11-2 17 5 132.3
2003 10-3 39 8 80.2
2004 10-2 116 5 -19.9
2005 7-5 35 29 48.7
2006 6-7 51 57 9.9
2007 6-6 92 24 4.3
2008 9-4 26 9 94.7
2009 11-2 99 34 -9.4
2010 8-5 70 6 46.9
2011 7-6 79 62 -18.3
2012 4-8 101 63 -39.1
2013 8-5 50 19 51.5
2014 7-6 61 64 -5.2
2015 12-2 49 15 60.3
2016 3-2 95 87 -39.6