Sports writers Chad Leistikow and Chris Cuellar take a look at the new crop of Iowa basketball players, and weigh the Hawkeyes' chances against Northwestern. Rodney White/The Register
IOWA CITY, Ia. — James Daniels and Akrum Wadley had barely contributed to Iowa’s 6-0 start in 2015 when the Hawkeye football team last headed to Northwestern.
It was an injury-riddled Iowa offense that day, and so coach Kirk Ferentz and his staff had to look deep on their bench.
Daniels had turned 18 the month before, a freshman in every sense of the word. He was needed on the offensive line, though, and so he diligently prepared all week, listed as a starting tackle.
Daniels got his first career start at guard that day, a position switch he was informed of the day before.
“When I’m old and stuff, I can tell my kids I started a Big Ten game as a freshman, which is pretty cool. I feel like it did give me confidence,” said Daniels, now a junior starting center.
“I’m not sure if I was ready, but I did know my assignments.”
Wadley was in his third year as a tailback for the Hawkeyes, but had shown a propensity for fumbling and had thus carried the ball only eight times heading into the game. He, too, was working hard and awaiting his opportunity.
“He's always had the ability to slip and slide,” Ferentz said of Wadley, “but just protecting the football and realizing that's part of the game, too.”
Wadley was about to slip and slide his way into Hawkeye lore.
He was elevated to the primary backup to Jordan Canzeri, only to see his role suddenly expand when Canzeri went out with a first-quarter injury.
Chris White, then the Iowa running backs coach, gave Wadley an odd pep talk.
“He told me, ‘This is it. If you don’t do good this game, you might not ever play here again,’” recalled Wadley, now a senior star. “He said, ‘No pressure.’”
Wadley felt the pressure all right. He also responded to it.
Wadley ran for 204 yards and four touchdowns (only high-stepping into the end zone on the final one, for the record). Iowa won 40-10 en route to the Rose Bowl.
“I already knew I was built for it,” Wadley said. “I had to prove it. I worked really hard the weeks prior to that and I hadn’t dropped the ball. That was the big deal. So I was really confident going in.”
Daniels and Wadley arrived as college football standouts that day in Evanston. They’ll be starting for Iowa (4-2, 1-2 Big Ten Conference) again Saturday when they make their eagerly anticipated return to Evanston, Ill., to face off with the Wildcats (3-3, 1-2). The game kicks off at 11 a.m. and will be televised on ESPN2.
Daniels didn’t play much the rest of the 2015 season, but that Northwestern game showed he belonged. Iowa gained 492 yards and held the ball for more than 37 minutes.
“I just remember I was nervous before the game, but once the game got going I was fine,” Daniels said. “And then when Canzeri went down, I was like, ‘Wow, that’s crazy. Our team is already banged up.’”
Among the injured was Daniels’ older brother, tailback LeShun Jr. That was one of the reasons Wadley was needed.
“The thing about that game, even though we did have missing parts, shifting around, we just focused on our fundamentals, and that’s why we ran the ball so good,” Daniels said.
It was an important lesson learned. He has been the team’s starting center the past two years.
Wadley went on to score touchdowns in Iowa’s next two games after his Northwestern breakthrough, against Maryland and Indiana. It was the springboard to a 1,000-yard rushing season as a junior and a lead back role this year.
But it started with a bit of desperation.
“I knew that my team depended on me,” Wadley said of his burst into the spotlight. “There wasn’t anybody else there. They weren’t going to take like a fullback and turn him into one of them Mark Weisman deals.”
Ferentz denied that Wadley was down to his last chance — “we weren’t going to make him walk home or anything” — but did say that the tailback from New Jersey made an important statement that day.
“We were pretty much out of options at that point, and I think he got that,” Ferentz said of Wadley. “He really played like a varsity player that day. It was really a good performance, and boy did we need it.”
Daniels and Wadley both said they’re looking forward to a return trip to Ryan Field, where they share an important milestone in their Hawkeye careers.
For Daniels, it will be the first time he’s played twice in the same Big Ten road venue.
Wadley, who has 741 rushing and receiving yards and seven touchdowns this season, pronounced himself “very excited.”
“I know they’re watching that film right now and they’re licking their chops,” he said of the Wildcats.
“But same here.”