How Iowa's mishmashed offensive line dominated Ohio State's vaunted front seven
IOWA CITY, Ia. — James Daniels said he had about 200 messages on his phone after Iowa trounced Ohio State on national television Saturday. The Warren, Ohio, native was all smiles as he described what it’d be like to go back home this offseason.
"There’s gonna be some salty fans, some salty people," he said with a wry smile.
"But oh well."
Iowa’s junior center had plenty reason to smile. After a string of underwhelming Big Ten Conference performances, Daniels and his young, injury-riddled, mishmashed offensive line outclassed Ohio State’s vaunted front seven. It paved the way for 243 yards and season-best totals for Akrum Wadley (118 yards) and James Butler (75 yards).
And what’s more? That all happened against the Buckeyes’ best rush defense in eight years — one that entered the game 10th in the country in rushing yards allowed, and one that’d just held Heisman favorite Saquon Barkley to 44 yards on 21 carries.
"My two college choices were pretty much here and Ohio State. I came to Iowa because of the offensive line play and how we do things here," Daniels said. "I (told the team) last night, 'Tomorrow, we need to show how an Iowa offensive line plays and how it’s like.' And that’s what we did today."
Yep, they did. Iowa’s 6.4 yards per carry reflect the line's push up front. It’s the kind of push last year’s Joe Moore Award-winning offensive line would get. Hawkeyes running backs averaged 4.48 yards per carry in 2016, with more than 2 yards before contact.
"I thought we blocked for the first time like you need to if you're going to be on the varsity," Kirk Ferentz said plainly in his postgame presser.
His unit certainly hadn’t blocked like that up to this point of Big Ten play. Let’s review Iowa’s rushing totals in those games:
- 82 yards (2.6 per carry) vs. Penn State
- 19 (0.8 per carry) vs. Michigan State
- 191 (5.0 per carry) vs. a laboring Illinois team
- 89 (2.7 per carry) vs. Northwestern
- 125 (3.8 per carry) vs. Minnesota.
So … how did this happen? Why the sudden success?
The starting five (Daniels, Sean Welsh, Keegan Render, Tristan Wirfs, Alaric Jackson) hasn’t changed since the Northwestern game. Butler returned against Minnesota. But even without the Nevada graduate transfer, an athlete like Wadley should be averaging far more than 2.7 yards — or, gulp, 0.8. That is, unless, he has no space to run.
Welsh said Iowa’s performance all came down to a more focused week of preparation.
"We’ve been doing the same thing every week, but I think it’s a matter of our intensity during the week," said Welsh, a fellow Ohio native and O-line elder statesman with Daniels. "Our commitment to our prep work, the film room, all that stuff. The smallest details. We were doing all that the weeks before, but I don’t know if we did it with as much intensity."
Daniels echoed that sentiment, saying having Ohio State as an opponent bumped practice rigor up a notch.
"We practice hard every week, but this week just focused on fundamentals because we knew we were playing against the type of players that, if you had your elbow out on the block, they were going to throw you," he said. "We knew when the game came that we’d have to focus on our technique, and that’s what we did."
If Iowa’s upcoming opponent had anything to do with its performance Saturday, that bodes well for next week. The Hawkeyes travel to Madison, Wisconsin, to take on the No. 3 Badgers, whose trench guys boast the fourth-best rushing defense in the country.
They have allowed 87.8 yards per game, 3 yards per carry and just three rushing touchdowns.
Now, it’s fair to ask, "Well, yeah their numbers will be good — who the heck have the Badgers played?" Your answer: They’ve played college football’s 68th-strongest schedule (Iowa has played the ninth-strongest schedule, for comparison).
But, at the same time, they’ve dominated top-tier running backs.
Florida Atlantic’s Devin Singletary, the country’s No. 5 running back in rush yards, has seven straight games with 100-plus yards on the ground. Wisconsin held him to 68 on 17 carries.
Northwestern’s Justin Jackson, a top-40 running back, mustered 25 yards on nine carries in a 33-24 loss to Wisconsin.
For his part, Wadley is ready and eager for the challenge. He was asked Saturday if a monkey was off his back after the ground attack’s performance.
"A gorilla off my back. Not a monkey."
Matthew Bain covers college football and basketball recruiting for the Des Moines Register. He also helps out with Iowa and Iowa State football and basketball coverage for HawkCentral and Cyclone Insider. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @MatthewBain_.