Recipe for Iowa upset over Penn State? A solid Hawkeyes' run game
IOWA CITY, Ia. – Iowa’s offense has an upset plan for No. 23 Penn State.
It isn’t a secret, even if running back Akrum Wadley bounces around, like buzz indicated on Tuesday.
The Hawkeyes (5-3, 3-2) have to run the ball.
Rushing results have been a shockingly simple gauge for success in 2016: Iowa wins when it runs well and loses when it can’t sniff 100 rushing yards. And it might attack one of few weaknesses on a Penn State (6-2, 4-1) team riding a four-game win streak.
“It’s a big game; Penn State is a great team,” Wadley said on Tuesday from a podium inside Iowa’s Football Operations Center. “I’m very excited and know the crowd is going to be alive.
“We’ve just got to stay hungry.”
Statistics make Iowa’s offensive benchmark even plainer.
Head coach Kirk Ferentz’s team has rushed for at least 179 yards in each of its five wins. The average per victory: 39.4 carries for 229.4 yards and 2.8 touchdowns.
Pretty good, right? That inflated 5.8 yards per carry mark would be among the best in the nation. And it shows Wadley, LeShun Daniels Jr. and quarterback C.J. Beathard can grind out drives on the ground in good situations.
“We were trying to get down to the basics and work on the fundamentals of Iowa football,” Beathard said of the bye week. “We’ve shown some signs of in some games, but in some games we just haven’t played our best. We’re hoping that we can go out and do that on Saturday.”
But the unit managed by offensive coordinator Greg Davis and run game coordinator Brian Ferentz has flailed at home. In three losses: 196 total rushing yards and 2.1 yards per carry. Not good.
Iowa’s offensive line has shouldered a substantial part of that blame. Six different starting lineups in eight games have added to the inconsistencies, as well as a struggling passing game, yet the front five is optimistic for Saturday.
“Still moving around quite a bit in practice,” left guard Ike Boettger said. “But the guys are back out there. The bye week was very, very key for a lot of guys. It will definitely help.
“The next four games are going to define how people remember this season.”
On Tuesday, Kirk Ferentz said tackles Boone Myers and Cole Croston were expected to play after the bye week and tight end George Kittle had, “been better in practice.” The rest and midseason repetitions can only be considered positive for a team on the longest road win streak in school history.
Especially when they’re blocking for Wadley and Daniels, who are both over 600 yards rushing this season.
“Penn State has a very good defense and is physical up front,” Boettger said. “It’s going to be a challenge.”
Penn State’s part in Iowa’s gameplan will remain unclear until the opening series.
Despite recent improvements and the return of linebackers Brandon Bell and Jason Cabinda, the Nittany Lions rank 81st in FBS in rushing defense and are allowing 183.4 yards per game.
The front four has been great getting to quarterbacks, but struggled to contain running backs in 300-yard outings by Pittsburgh and Michigan.
Can Iowa push forward like the two teams that have already beaten Penn State? Head coach James Franklin is aware of the strategy ahead of his first game against the Hawkeyes.
“Just look at what Iowa does,” Franklin said Tuesday on the Big Ten’s weekly coaches’ teleconference. “They do a great job of protecting the football and on offense, they don’t make mistakes.
“They’re great up front and that’s how they’ve been built and always have been built.”
Injuries help explain why the old “Linebacker U” is struggling to stop the run. All three starters in the 4-3 were out against Michigan, with Bell (leg) and Cabinda (hand) recently returning. Both are averaging better than 10 tackles per game since stepping back into the lineup.
After upsetting then-No. 2 Ohio State, the Nittany Lions allowed 46 rushing yards against Purdue last week.
“The more games you play with a young football team, you gain experience,” Franklin said. “And when you have success, you can build confidence.”
Iowa rushing to victory at Beaver Stadium will be easier said than done for a myriad of reasons. Defense and Saturday’s environment will dictate plenty. Time of possession limited Iowa’s opportunities against North Dakota State and Wisconsin, and Penn State certainly has a star rusher in Saquon Barkley.
But a steady diet of ground-and-pound for Iowa’s offense should be obvious entering the final third of the season. It’s been a key ingredient in every Hawkeye victory so far.
“It’s not like we’re going to look a whole lot different, I can assure you of that,” Ferentz said. “Hopefully we’ll look better, sharper, crisper and (have) a little better execution.”
IOWA’S GAME ON THE GROUND
No surprise: Iowa is rushing well in wins while struggling in defeat. Below is the game-by-game rushing breakdown, with each opponent’s current FBS rushing defense ranking.
Opponent W-L Att. Yards Rank
Miami (OH) W 29 212 33
Iowa State W 36 198 115
N.D. State L 25 34 N/A
Rutgers W 38 193 123
Northwestern L 41 79 39
Minnesota W 41 179 30
Purdue W 53 365 121
Wisconsin L 27 83 12