Boettger soldiers on as Iowa's new left guard

Mark Emmert

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Ike Boettger said he didn’t flinch last Sunday when he received word that he would be switching spots on Iowa’s beleaguered offensive line.

Sure, he had almost no experience playing left guard, even in high school. And yes, being moved from right tackle could be perceived as a demotion.

“Let’s do it,” was Boettger’s immediate response when offensive line coach Brian Ferentz revealed some shuffling among the Hawkeye quintet.

The alignment has changed since Iowa's media day in August, but Ike Boettger (75) is still a valuable starter on the Hawkeye offensive line. He's at left guard now, and committed to making it work.

The three moves — Boone Myers slid from left guard to left tackle and Cole Croston from left to right tackle — paid off in a 14-7 victory at Minnesota on Saturday. Iowa rushed for 179 yards and quarterback C.J. Beathard was sacked only once.

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For Myers and Croston, the shakeup amounted to them manning positions they played last season.

Boettger had the biggest adjustment. His previous experience as a guard came in mop-up duty two seasons ago, also at Minnesota. He hadn’t practiced there since.

Until last week.

“I personally don’t think it was the changes. It was really our attitude going into the game,” Boettger said Tuesday, speaking of the improvement in line play. “The whole team, just the feeling on the sidelines and on the field, we had a little bit of our confidence back that we had really been missing the three weeks before.”

Hawkeye players and coaches have been pounding home the cliché that there’s a fine line between winning and losing. But it was clear that, until Iowa forged a finer offensive line, there wouldn’t be much of the former.

Iowa (4-2, 2-1 Big Ten Conference) mustered only 34 yards rushing Sept. 17 while losing at home to North Dakota State. The Hawkeyes beat Rutgers 14-7 the next week, but could only convert 3-of-12 third- and fourth-down attempts as drives repeatedly stalled.

The tipping point came last Saturday, when Beathard was sacked six times in another home loss, this time to Northwestern.

That’s when Brian Ferentz came into his offensive line meeting room and delivered the news: the names wouldn’t change, but how they lined up would. The players weren’t being given a choice, just a chance to crawl out of the funk they had been in.

“He asked me if I was comfortable with it and I said ‘absolutely,’” Boettger said of the discussion with Brian Ferentz.

Boettger was asked what would have happened if he had answered “no.”

“Who knows?” he said in a tone that suggested “no” was not an option.

Instead, Boettger went out on the practice field and started tangling with defensive tackles Nathan Bazata and Jaleel Johnson for a change. He spent more time studying film of performances of past Hawkeye guards and less time focusing on the Gophers’ defense.

“I thought it was fun,” Boettger said. “Everybody just really wants to play. I personally could care less where I’m playing at as long as I’m out there helping the team. I don’t know a guy on the team that’s not like that.”

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Hawkeyes quarterback C.J. Beathard said the changes on the offensive line didn’t alter his approach to the game. But he also sensed a rejuvenation in that unit.

“I think we had a little bit more urgency in practice this last week in getting in and out of the huddle. Just more tempo,” Beathard said.

That carried over to Saturday and has been felt again this week as Iowa — with the same alignment on the offensive line — prepares to visit Purdue (3-2, 1-1).

Coach Kirk Ferentz, Brian’s father, said he liked what he saw from the offensive line Saturday. But he left open the possibility of more tinkering in the final six games of the season.

“The whole group had better cohesion,” Kirk Ferentz said. “It was hardly the finished product, but I think we made strides.”

Boettger, a junior, is listed at 6-foot-6, 307 pounds, the largest starter on the Hawkeye line. It’s hard to believe he played quarterback, tight end and defensive end at Cedar Falls High School, 80-some pounds ago.

Switching to guard forced him to speed up Saturday.

“You’re right on the guy,” Boettger said of defensive tackles. “You know who you’re blocking right away and there’s not as much space so you’ve just got to get your hands on him in pass and it’s a lot quicker in run.”

As for moving from one side of the line to the other:

“Your hand placement and how you’re stepping is just the complete opposite. It’s just getting comfortable with it, but then when you get on a guy, it’s really the same. You’re either reaching him left or right.”

Boettger said he’s ready to settle in at guard.

“If this is our best lineup to win,” he said. “I think in the history of Iowa football, it’s always been tough, smart, physical, being the most physical team on the field. That’s what we’re trying to be. I don’t think we have been even close to there this whole year, but that’s what we’re going to be.”