Hawkeyes rumble through running back trouble, North Texas defense
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa’s running back problems began with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
They had ended, at least for now, by Saturday's final kneel-down against North Texas, as two young rushers showed their abilities and secured a 31-14 win with senior starters Akrum Wadley and James Butler sidelined by injuries.
The Hawkeyes (3-0) relied on the punishing position and should have a stable of proven running backs entering Big Ten Conference play next week.
“I was eager. I was excited for this season,” redshirt freshman running back Toren Young said.
“The first two games went by and I was patient. I just want what’s best for the team. I finally got my opportunity and it felt good.”
Young and true freshman Ivory Kelly-Martin were Saturday’s second-half standouts for Iowa, flashing potential and toughness in a penalty-filled game that frustrated most of the 65,668 fans in attendance at Kinnick Stadium. Both players received the first carries of their collegiate careers once Wadley and Butler went out, and made the most of extended drives with consistently strong runs.
Young, a 220-pound back from Madison, Wis., took a game-high 19 carries for 78 yards. Kelly-Martin had 11 carries for 74 yards and two touchdowns, all coming after halftime.
“Both those guys have really practiced well and really conduct themselves well,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Toren is a tough, hard-nosed runner. That’s his deal. Ivory has impressed us with his ability to focus, and he’s a quietly serious guy. That’s unusual for a guy out of high school. He’s got a good skill set on top of it.
“To me, it was no surprise that they played well.”
Ferentz briefed Young on the possibility of getting carries prior to kickoff against the Mean Green. Kelly-Martin, an 18-year-old from Plainfield, Ill., had already burned his redshirt and been on the field for Iowa as a kickoff returner. Neither thought they’d actually get to help the Hawkeyes close out a wily North Texas (1-2) team, but Wadley reportedly suffered a second-quarter lower leg injury and Butler was helped off early in the third quarter with an apparent right elbow injury.
Both players were still in pads on the sidelines at the final whistle, but Ferentz was unable to offer timelines on their recoveries immediately after the game.
Ferentz’s comment for Wadley: “Doesn’t look like anything serious. He just didn’t feel real confident in that second half.”
And for Butler: “I’m not overly concerned. Hopefully it’ll be OK.”
Wadley was flagged for high-stepping into the end zone on what would have been a 76-yard touchdown pass, but the controversial unsportsmanlike call pulled the Hawkeyes back to the 21-yard line and momentarily took the electric senior out of the lineup. Quarterback Nate Stanley ultimately completed a touchdown pass on the drive to tight end T.J. Hockenson, but it was a sign of odd things to come against North Texas.
“I just told (Wadley) he’s too good to do that,” Ferentz said. “Close, not close, why give anybody an opportunity to have to make that decision? He’s too good a player for that.”
Wadley took just two more touches before staying on the west sideline for the remainder of the nonconference finale. Butler became the go-to back — even forcing and recovering a fumble from North Texas defensive lineman Ulaiasi Tauaalo after Stanley gave it up — but still averaged less than five yards per carry against the Mean Green front.
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Butler’s elbow issue came on a tackle while he was taking a touch on his sixth straight snap. After a 1-yard gain, the Nevada graduate transfer visited Iowa’s locker room and returned to offer his new team support.
“We’ve always had a next-man-in policy around here,” Iowa senior lineman Sean Welsh said. “We’re never really too concerned when one guy goes out. We are concerned for them and wish them the best in getting back with us, but we’re going to keep doing our jobs.
“The young guys jumped in and didn’t skip a beat.”
Young and Kelly-Martin were responsible for the runs that put Saturday’s win out of reach. The pair took handoffs on 15 of the 16 plays that were part of an 87-yard drive taking 8:50 off the clock in the fourth quarter. Kelly-Martin ran that score in from two yards out and doubled his total in the waning moments on a six-yard scamper.
“They’ve been doing a good job in practice, and it was just a matter of time until they got a couple more snaps, honestly,” Iowa junior guard Keegan Render said. “I thought they did really well. We told them, ‘Hey, run hard and we’ll open up holes. You guys have done this before in practice and it’s the same thing once you’re in the game.’”
Iowa was credited with 40:45 in time of possession on Saturday, the second-highest total in Ferentz’s 19 seasons. More than 21 minutes dripped off the clock with the Hawkeyes holding it after halftime, when Young and Kelly-Martin totaled 28 carries.
Whether or not Wadley and Butler can jump back into the lineup against Penn State next Saturday, Iowa has learned that it can lean on two previously unknown prospects.
“We’ve just all got to be ready,” Young said. “I hope those guys are back and healthy to play. They give the team a good opportunity to win. But if not, us young guys have got to be ready.”
RUNNING BACK BY COMMITTEE
The Hawkeyes had to turn to multiple running backs on Saturday against North Texas. Here is the position’s production with rushing attempts, yards, their longest carry of the day, yards per carry and touchdowns scored.
Name Class Att. Yards Long YPC TD
Toren Young R-Fr. 19 78 15 4.1 0
James Butler Sr. 16 74 12 4.6 0
Ivory Kelly-Martin Fr. 11 74 23 6.7 2
Akrum Wadley R-Sr. 8 24 14 3.0 0