Iowa takes the committee approach to running game, with promising results

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Mekhi Sargent does not like going backward. He gets irate when a single defender is able to drag him to the ground.

Iowa’s starting running back is probably going to enjoy this week’s matchup.

“My mindset going into the game is just win the one-on-one,” Sargent said Tuesday. “When I get tackled by one person, it doesn’t sit right with me. I want it to be more than one person taking me down. I want to be elusive, powerful and physical.”

The No. 14 Hawkeyes (3-0, 1-0 Big Ten Conference) have been running the football more effectively this season, thanks to the efforts of Sargent and his three cohorts. The team is averaging 173 yards on the ground per game, 4.4 per carry. On Saturday, Iowa gets a golden chance to pump up those numbers against a smallish Middle Tennessee State defense that is allowing 222 rushing yards in its 1-2 start to the season. Only one starting Blue Raider defensive lineman is bigger than 256 pounds.

Sargent, Iowa’s leading rusher with 208 yards, figures to be plowing through would-be tacklers to his heart’s content.

Not that he could say that out loud.

“I expect them to come in to Kinnick flying around,” Sargent said of the Blue Raiders, who are coming off a bye week just as Iowa is. “We don’t want to go out there thinking that they’re just going to be a pushover. We’ve got to go out there and do our job.”

It took three Rutgers defenders to bring down Iowa running back Mekhi Sargent on this play. And that's the way he wants it. "When I get tackled by one person, it doesn’t sit right with me," the Hawkeyes' leading rusher says.

For Iowa running backs, that job is to push for extra yards while protecting the football. No back does that better than Sargent, who packs a surprising punch for somebody who checks in at 5-foot-9, 212 pounds. He seems to always be falling forward at the conclusion of his runs. His 40 carries this season have produced only four lost yards (against 212 yards gained).

Although that’s too many for him.

“No negative yards,” Sargent said repeatedly when asked what his goals are in the run and pass game.

It benefits Sargent that he is able to keep fresh throughout games. Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz has taken the rare step of splitting time between four running backs, and the results have been promising.

Toren Young has 120 yards to show for his 22 carries to lead the running back quartet at 5.5 yards per attempt. But he saw his lightest action of the season in Iowa’s last game, an 18-17 victory over Iowa State. Young ran four times for 13 yards in that one.

True freshman Tyler Goodson also has 22 carries, for 105 yards. He has caught six passes as well, although those receptions have netted only 14 yards.

And then there’s the no-longer-forgotten man, Ivory Kelly-Martin. The junior who won Iowa’s starting running back spot last summer seemed to be getting phased out of action in the opening two games, but he ran five times for 20 yards in Ames, including a key third-down pickup near the goal line that set up Iowa’s lone touchdown.

The goal, Kelly-Martin said, is quite simple.

“It keeps the defense on their heels having a fresh running back going in. While they’re tired, you’ve got a new guy,” he said.

It’s working because Iowa’s running backs say they’re unconcerned with individual playing time and statistics.

Head coach Kirk Ferentz concurred.

“Nobody is counting plays. They are just playing,” he said of his four running backs.

They’ve played well enough that Iowa ranks 62nd in the nation in rushing yards per game. That’s a middle-of-the-pack number that is notable, primarily because last season the Hawkeyes were 94th.

Sargent plants himself next to running backs coach Derrick Foster when he’s on the sideline, waiting for his number to be called. He said he does no lobbying, though.

“It just all revolves around our athletic ability and what they think is best for the team. We just go out there and be unselfish football players,” Sargent said.

“I’m on the sideline cheering on my teammates. I’m just as energized as I would be on the field. I’m over there hyped.”

Sargent said he’s not sure if Brian Ferentz will keep using four backs all season, or if he’ll winnow the rotation once Big Ten Conference games resume Oct. 5 at Michigan.

This week, against a leaky Blue Raiders defense, Ferentz might even have the luxury of turning to his fifth back, freshman Shadrick Byrd.

“I know he wants to conserve our bodies and just keep us healthy,” Sargent said.

Kelly-Martin battled an ankle injury throughout last season, eventually losing his starting role to Sargent. A concussion kept him out of another game.

But he’s healthy now and ready to contribute, even if on special teams. He said he likes the four-back approach. He feels stronger. He thinks opposing defenses will sense that, too.

“We want to make sure we’re finishing, trying to get extra yards or breaking tackles,” Kelly-Martin said. “We’ve been doing a good job making people miss in the secondary.

 “We’ve got to make sure we’re playing to the best of our ability.”

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.

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