As Iowa's air attack grabs headlines, Hawkeyes wait for ground game to heat up
IOWA CITY, Ia. — The headlines and hype have rolled in with each Nate Stanley bomb, as Iowa’s air attack enjoys a rare moment in the spotlight. Many are benefiting from the passing prowess. Among those are the Hawkeyes usually shouldering the offensive load.
Iowa’s running game has been patiently waiting in the wings for a breakout showing. The Hawkeyes (5-1, 2-1 Big Ten) haven’t needed a bruising, workmanlike ground performance of late, with Stanley & Co. holding down the fort. But chances are high this group will need to carry things at some point over the next six games.
Whether it's Saturday against Maryland (4-2, 2-1) or later in the year, Iowa’s backfield committee isn’t going to be overshadowed forever.
“At least as far as I can speak about myself, you still think about run offense here at Iowa,” center Keegan Render said. “We’ve been passing pretty well, but as far as my mentality, it’s still run-first. Let’s get the run game going, and then the pass game will come.
“It’s obviously been different the past couple weeks, but my mentality is still to run first.”
The raw figures aren’t the prettiest. Respectively, Iowa’s 155.7 rushing yards per game and 3.9 yards per carry rank ninth and 10th in the 14-team Big Ten, respectively. No ball carrier has cracked triple digits yet. Of the 186 total carries between backs Ivory Kelly-Martin, Toren Young and Mekhi Sargent, only one has covered 20-plus yards.
Talks of a backfield committee dominated the preseason chatter and, for the most part, that’s held true. All three are within 20 carries of each other — Young at 73, Sargent at 63 and Kelly-Martin at 50 — and each has gotten extended run as the “feature” back.
Perhaps the surest preseason bet in college football is a running back missing time at some point during the year. The relentless punishment endured make injuries, whether nagging or severe, hard to avoid.
Kelly-Martin drew the short straw first. An ankle issue suffered in the season opener kept him out against Iowa State and Northern Iowa. He returned for Wisconsin in Week 4, but Kelly-Martin was in concussion protocol by the time Iowa’s win over Minnesota ended. The sophomore running back didn’t make the Indiana trip.
Kelly-Martin is expected back against Maryland, returning the Hawkeyes’ backfield to full strength for just the third time in six weeks. The run game hasn't been able to dictate outcomes yet, but Young and Sargent at least haven’t held the offense back while waiting for teammates to heal.
“We just come in each day and know that it’s going to take more than one back,” Young said. “We all prepare like we’re the starter and try to come in and do the best we can for our team.
“Not every run is going to be a home run, but when you feel yourself getting those chunks of yardage — small chunks of yardage — and just being able to move the ball and sustain drives, that's when you start feeling right.”
Specks of that sentiment emerged last week. Both Young and Sargent averaged five-plus yards per carry in the 42-16 win over Indiana, a drastic improvement from the Minnesota victory. Overall, the Hawkeyes averaged 4.97 yards per touch last week, their best number this season.
That could be the perfect lead-in to Saturday, as a drab, windy outlook is on tap for the 11 a.m. kickoff. With northwest winds projected at 25 to 35 miles per hour, a heavy ground-game prescription could be the perfect Hawkeye remedy.
Maryland will make it difficult; the Terrapins surrender just 126.3 rushing yards per game — good for fifth in the conference and 36th nationally. But with Iowa’s passing game now a legitimate threat, holes could emerge that normally wouldn’t be there.
“We want to be balanced in a perfect world," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “If that opportunity is there, hopefully we can get that established. You can take one thing or another away if you choose to. You can take the run away if you need to.
“… If we can play that way, it makes us a better football team. Sometimes you can. It's more fun when you can. But that's not always easy to do.”
Through six games, Iowa’s run game can attest. The offensive attention has shifted from historical Hawkeye norms, but we’re merely halfway home in what Iowa hopes turns into a special season.
“That room has stepped up for us a lot — and not even this year, but throughout history,” tight end T.J. Hockenson said. “Historically, we’ve gone through backs. That room is just so deep, and everybody knows what they’re doing. This year’s no different.”
Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.