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Akrum Wadley going from game-breaker to workhorse for Iowa's run game

Chris Cuellar
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Akrum Wadley has been slowed from breaking free on runs and receptions in Iowa’s last two Big Ten games. The focal point of a struggling offense, his longest play since the heartbreaking Penn State loss has gone just 18 yards.

Yet the dynamic senior running back continues to chug along, passing former Hawkeye stars Dennis Mosley, Eddie Phillips and Shonn Greene on the all-time rushing list with Saturday’s performance against Illinois, as he quietly topped 100 yards and scored two timely touchdowns.

Wadley’s next two stops: Northwestern, after Iowa’s bye week, and Ronnie Harmon, on the career rushing chart.

Iowa's Akrum Wadley runs in for a 18-yard touchdown during the Hawkeyes' game against Illinois at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017.

“It just feels good to get back to what we do best,” Wadley said.  

Wadley’s 23 carries and 115 yards on the ground against Illinois took him over the century mark for the 12th time in his career. It also marked the fourth time he logged rushing and receiving scores in the same game. And it was all done without truly hitting the open field until his 18-yard touchdown run to put the 45-16 win away in the fourth quarter.

“Akrum does such a great job of finding grass,” Iowa senior guard Sean Welsh said. “We’ve got a few guys who can do that.

“When we’re in the thick of it, I can never tell who’s back there. But he does such a great job of finding that space and getting to speed — even if it doesn’t look like it’s there.”

Iowa’s total offense and rushing offense rank among the bottom 40 teams in FBS through six games.

The Sept. 30 loss at Michigan State crushed the averages, with Wadley the only Hawkeye to finish with positive yardage in the team’s worst rushing performance in more than a decade. Those 30 yards on 17 carries — the team finished with 19 — came on the heels of Wadley’s explosive finish against Penn State, when he scored on a 70-yard reception and a 35-yard run in the fourth quarter.

It was tough to swallow for a speedy and competitive back, and an offensive line used to giving him space to work.

Iowa (4-2, 1-2) responded with 38 carries for 191 yards against Illinois.

“There’s always room for improvement, but I felt like we grew today,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said after Saturday’s win. “It was tough in the first half, and credit goes to Illinois because they came in here to win a football game and they did a lot of really good things.

“But I thought, as we pressed on and pushed on, we kept playing. That’s one thing this team has done pretty well for six games.”

Welsh indicated Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz put added emphasis on run game execution ahead of the homecoming meeting with Illinois (2-3, 0-2). It paid off, with 10 first downs on the ground and a 5.0-yards-per-carry average for Wadley and the team. Even if the Newark, New Jersey product couldn’t add many Fighting Illini highlights to his rushing reel, his effort was enough to secure a win.

Iowa running back Akrum Wadley scores a touchdown in the final seconds of the first half of the Hawkeyes' game against Illinois at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017.

Redshirt freshman Toren Young took eight carries for 32 yards as his top reserve with graduate transfer James Butler still out due to injury.

“Brian was really on top of us to get it fixed, and I think you have to give him a lot of the credit this week,” Welsh said.

Wadley went from 13th to 10th on Iowa’s career rushing list Saturday, passing Mosley (1976-79), Phillips (1980-83) and Greene (2005-06, 08) in the process. His 2,246 yards since stepping on the field in 2014 put him 25 behind Harmon (1982-85) for ninth all-time.

But Wadley’s all-purpose versatility remains his greatest asset to a Hawkeye offense devoid of consistent deep threats through half of its 2017 season. He’s averaging 80.5 rushing yards and 43.0 receiving yards per game, good for almost 35 percent of Iowa’s total offense.

The big play weapon is proving he’s capable of being Iowa’s workhorse in Big Ten action.

“We’ve just got to be consistent,” Wadley said. “Not to live in the past, but last week, we weren’t that good as a unit. This week, we bounced back and did what we were supposed to do.”

Iowa's All-Time Rushing Leaders

The top 10 rushers by career yardage in Hawkeye history.

No.        Name                   Att.        Yards     Years

1             Sedrick Shaw      837        4,156     1993-96

2             Ladell Betts         831        3,686     1998-01

3             Albert Young      660        3,173     2004-07

4             Tavian Banks      505        2,977     1994-97

5             Fred Russell        514        2,760     2001-03

6             Mark Weisman  599        2,602     2012-14

7             Tony Stewart      532        2,562     1987-90

8             Owen Gill            489        2,556     1981-84

9             Ronnie Harmon 443        2,271     1982-85

10           Akrum Wadley  403        2,246     2014-Present