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Kirk Ferentz is impressed with the breakthrough that Lovie Smith has achieved in Year 4 at Illinois, and also tells some senior stories. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

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IOWA CITY, Ia. – “Three yards and a cloud of dust” used to be a way of mocking the conservative, run-the-football-at-all-costs style of play in the Big Ten Conference.

There is no dust in modern football stadium anymore, thanks to slick new turf installed in most.

And, for Iowa, gaining three yards on the ground seemed well beyond reach on Saturday anyway.

What has happened to the Hawkeye rushing attack this season has been mystifying. And no more so than against an Illinois defense giving up 196 rushing yards per game. Against Iowa, it looked like the Steel Curtain.

Iowa ran the ball 32 times and gained 79 yards, a paltry 2.5 average. It wasn’t the worst performance of the season — that was a one-yard afternoon at Michigan — but it was perhaps the most inexplicable. That game against the Wolverines included eight sacks of quarterback Nate Stanley. Illinois got none of those, but six tackles for loss against normally elusive freshman running back Tyler Goodson.

Iowa offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs said the Illinois front four frequently used “pirate stunts,” sending two defenders slanting to the inside. Iowa tried to counter by running outside of that pressure, but the Illini linebackers were quick to flow to the football and make tackles at or near the line of scrimmage.

“They might have been ready for it,” said Wirfs, who was also impressed with the improvement in an Illini defense that Iowa shredded 63-0 a year ago.

“They were swarming to the ball. Everyone was getting there. They were fighting off blocks and their energy was really good.”

The Hawkeyes entered the game averaging only 99 yards rushing per Big Ten contest. But against Illinois, it was reasonable to expect that to change.

Goodson had put up 94 yards in his starting debut last week against Minnesota. He was no longer splitting duties with juniors Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young.

Goodson got a career-high 21 carries Saturday, and turned them into 38 yards. After a nifty 10-yard scamper early in the second quarter, Goodson gained 15 yards on his next 13 carries. Eight of his attempts netted either no gain or lost yardage.

The Hawkeyes tried Goodson up the middle, around each end and everywhere in between. Always, he was met by an Illini defender. The blocking was subpar.

Sargent gained six yards on his lone carry. Young entered the game late and ran three times for seven yards.

Iowa handed the ball twice to wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette. He gained four yards on one and two yards on the other.

Wide receiver Tyrone Tracy got the ball on a reverse, appeared to have some open field, stopped to try to cut back and was tackled for no gain.

It was that kind of game. And it was one reason the No. 20 Hawkeyes (8-3, 5-3 Big Ten) couldn’t gain separation on an Illinois team that is much better than versions of the recent past. Illinois fell to 6-5 and 4-4 in the conference.

Iowa’s offensive linemen pointed to success in the air (Stanley threw for 308 yards) and the lack of quarterback sacks as signs of progress. And give the Hawkeyes credit for finding something that worked well enough to win a close game.

But the lack of a reliable running game surely contributed to Iowa settling for six Keith Duncan field-goal attempts while Illinois, with its opportunistic defense, kept lurking. Duncan made four of them. He now has 27 on the season to lead the nation.

How bad did it get for Iowa’s ground game? Its best plays might have been when quarterback Nate Stanley ran in short-yardage situations. The senior gained 22 yards on four carries, good for 5.5 apiece. The only two times Iowa converted on third down with a rushing play, it was Stanley who gained the needed yardage.

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“You couldn’t ask for a better leader than Stanley, just putting his body on the line,” said Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum, who has been leading his quarterback on successful sneaks up the middle all season.

“Just stay low and get good pad level and drive your man as far as you can and let Nate get that first down.”

That’s good for Stanley.

That’s not so good for Iowa’s branding as a “smash-mouth” offense.

“I think you can win ugly,” Wirfs said. “But a win’s a win. Especially this late in November, you’re going to take whatever you can get.”

There is one game left for Iowa in late November, at Nebraska on Friday. The Cornhuskers entered Saturday surrendering 188 yards per game on the ground. That’s 12th in the Big Ten. Illinois was 13th.

If the Hawkeyes can’t run the ball against these teams, they’re going to have to keep airing it out. And keep Duncan in the conversation for all-American.

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

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