Analysis: Making Wadley the workhorse best bet for Iowa

Mark Emmert,

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Iowa has gone on the road twice this season against porous Big Ten rushing defenses.

At Rutgers, the Hawkeye football team didn’t exactly give an inspired performance, but ran for 193 yards and pulled out a 14-7 victory.

At Purdue, the Hawkeyes dominated with 365 yards on the ground and came away with a 49-35 win.

Iowa's Akrum Wadley picked up 22 yards on this run against Michigan, and figures to find more room to roam Saturday at Illinois.

Which brings them to Illinois for one final road test and another opponent that can be run over. The Illini (3-7, 2-5 Big Ten) rank 11th in the conference, allowing 209 rushing yards per game. Purdue and Rutgers are 13th and 14, respectively.

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Last Saturday, Wisconsin swamped the Illini, running 64 times for 363 yards while passing on a mere 14 occasions. The result was a 48-3 victory.

So there’s a very simple blueprint for Iowa (6-4, 4-3) when it lines up at Memorial Stadium for an 11 a.m. kickoff. Don’t get cute. Don’t toy with a team that will be eager for any sign that it can compete.

The Hawkeyes don’t have much of a passing game to begin with. A forecast that calls for 45-degree weather and 26 mph winds will limit that even more.

Iowa does have an emerging star in Akrum Wadley. It’s time for the Hawkeyes to let him carry them home.

The junior tailback ran for 115 yards, picked up another 52 on short passes, and provided nearly three-fourths of Iowa’s offense in a 14-13 upset of No. 3 Michigan last Saturday.

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He also picked up a hug from his coach, Kirk Ferentz, an act of acceptance that seemed to mean as much to Wadley as the victory.

“I'll hug him more, if it makes him play good,” Ferentz quipped Tuesday. “Thirteen months ago, we couldn't trust him with the football, and now we more than trust him with it.”

Wadley's emergence is not to suggest that LeShun Daniels Jr., the sturdy senior who starts at tailback for Iowa, has done anything to earn a demotion. He put in a solid evening against Michigan, running 14 times for 54 yards, including an eight-yarder on the opening play that set a positive tone. The Hawkeyes still need him.

But Wadley is something rarer — an athlete who can slide sideways, shift gears, run around and over would-be tacklers, all on one play. He’s also a threat to turn a screen pass into a touchdown at any moment, something Daniels is rarely asked to do.

“Whenever the ball’s in his hands, he has the opportunity to make big plays,” Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard said of Wadley, who was nearly converted to defensive back two seasons ago. “He’s really put it on himself to learn the offense, learn the protections.”

He’s also a jolt of energy for the Hawkeyes, which figure to need one Saturday. Iowa has played back-to-back night games in highly charged atmospheres. The Hawkeyes turned in their worst performance of the season two weeks ago in a 41-14 loss at Penn State, then stunned the Wolverines by pivoting 180 degrees and playing their best game last week at Kinnick Stadium.

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Wadley, who has been known to turn 360 degrees while bursting through the line, may be the perfect player to wake Iowa up early Saturday after another late-morning kickoff in a half-empty stadium.

He’s also the perfect pick-me-up for an offensive line that constantly finds itself shifting around. Keegan Render will start at guard again because of an injury to Cole Croston. Levi Paulsen may make his first career start at the other guard spot after Ike Boettger went down late against Michigan. That would move Sean Welsh and Boone Myers out to the tackle positions.

Against Michigan, Iowa’s run-blocking was superb while it’s pass-blocking remained shakier. The Illini love to put opponents in passing downs so that star defensive ends Carroll Phillips (17 tackles for loss) and Dawuane Smoot (12) can rush with abandon.

“Inside, they roll a lot of guys through. I know we can get after them. They’re a little undersized at some points,” Render said of the Illinois defensive front.

“The biggest thing this week is getting going on the ground fast. Get the run game going because that will loosen the D-ends up and obviously they won’t have as good of a pass rush.”

Against Michigan, Wadley had twice as many touches (28) as Daniels, the first time the pendulum has swung that way for Iowa’s tailback tandem. The Hawkeyes should double down on that strategy Saturday.

Even Illinois recognizes that as the smart option.

“It’s funny. Me and our defensive end, Dawuane Smoot, we were just talking that when we see 25 (Wadley), we’ve got to make sure we run our speed, keep our head up. He’s elusive,” Illinois linebacker Hardy Nickerson said. “I also like 29 (Daniels), too, a power back. It seems like every week in the Big Ten you’re facing a good back.” 

The Illini have faced many and have stopped none. It’s Wadley’s turn Saturday.

Against that Illinois run defense, with that Iowa passing attack, in that wind, there’s no need to trust anyone but Wadley with the football.