Iowa football: Ready for rain at Penn State, 'nothing changes' in Hawkeyes' game plan

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Iowa football players have been briefed by head coach Kirk Ferentz about Saturday’s potentially rainy conditions at Penn State. Bring extra pairs of cleats for the grass surface at Beaver Stadium, he told them.

The team has also intentionally practiced in the rain — getting that chance in August, the day the Big Ten Network bus tour was in town.

On his Wednesday-night appearance on the Register’s “Hawk Central” radio show on KxNO (1460 AM) in Des Moines, running backs coach Derrick Foster assured us the Hawkeyes are well-prepared for a Saturday forecast that’s calling for a 100 percent chance of showers and temperatures in the low 40s.

Iowa running back Mekhi Sargent's game-by-game carries total: 12, 11, 15, 6, 9, 10 and 10. The sophomore has 297 rushing yards and a running-back-best 75 receiving yards this season.

“If it’s out of your control, there’s no need to worry about it. Let’s just focus on the things that we can control,” Foster said the players have been told. “And if we’ve got to run the ball, let’s run the ball. And if we throw it around, let’s catch it. Let’s make tackles, and so forth. Nothing changes for the game plan.”

The question has been asked a lot this week: Which team would the rain favor — 18th-ranked Iowa (6-1, 3-1 Big Ten Conference) or No. 16 Penn State (5-2, 2-2) — in Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. ESPN-televised game?

Neither, Foster answered, before adding this: “The most physical and tough team and who outplays each other until the last (second) is what matters.”

What's behind the running-back rotation?

Foster, in his first year as running backs coach, isn’t likely to be able to brag about a 1,000-yard rusher by season’s end. He hasn't even had his first 100-yard rusher in a game. That’s largely because the Hawkeyes divvy up carries between three sophomores.

Collectively, though, Toren Young (403 yards), Mekhi Sargent (297) and Ivory Kelly-Martin (279) have gained 979 yards on 229 carries through seven games. Almost amazingly, the rushing attempts have been split nearly evenly three ways — Young, 82; Kelly-Martin, 74; Sargent, 73.

How many touches a guy gets per game is not pre-determined.

“Most of it is from a situational standpoint,” Foster said.

Certain plays are designed for certain guys. Kelly-Martin, who has missed three games with injuries, is Iowa’s fastest back. When healthy, he’s the best home-run threat — though he hasn’t hit one this year. His longest rush is 19 yards.

Young is the bulldozer. He leads the group with 4.9 yards per carry. By the way, Foster said Young would be available for Saturday’s game despite leaving with an upper-body injury in the 23-0 win vs. Maryland.

Sargent is almost a hybrid of the two; he has been excellent in pass-blocking situations, often deployed on third downs and near the goal line. He leads the group with four touchdowns.

Foster has the freedom to rotate the backs and will sometimes go with the hot hand. Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz also might request a particular player for a play he wants to call.

“It all starts in practice. I kind of understand who Brian wants in certain situations,” Foster said. “If there’s a specific back that he particularly wants, he will communicate that with me.”

'Fumble' isn't a term Iowa uses.

Foster jokingly bristled when we brought up that between his running backs and fullbacks, there hasn't been a single fumble this season on 237 carries and 15 receptions.

Either he didn't want to jinx it, or he didn't like the term "fumble."

“We don’t use that word. We say we have to protect the football," Foster said. "Ball security is key. Those are things we work on daily."

Obviously, wet weather will put ball security at an even higher premium Saturday.

Iowa running backs coach Derrick Foster talks with reporters during Iowa football media day on Friday, Aug. 10, 2018, in Iowa City.