What's going on with Iowa football's run game? Tyler Goodson dissects the Hawkeyes' 'on and off' attack

IOWA CITY — Through four games, opposing defenses facing Iowa's offense have made their top priority very clear: Stop Tyler Goodson.

And for good reason. The junior running back broke out in 2020 during the Big Ten-only season. He was named first team All-Big Ten and this year was selected to the Doak Walker Award preseason watch list. 

Teams have aggressively stacked the box, placing seven or eight players near the line of scrimmage, in an effort to stop Goodson and Iowa's ground game. Statistically, it's worked. Despite Iowa's 4-0 record and top-five ranking, the team ranks 12th in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game.

"It can get frustrating," Goodson said. "But I won't let it get that far for me. I know there's games where every game isn't a good game or every play isn't going to be a big run. 

"For me it's all about getting the little yards and keep getting stronger throughout the game so when that big play does come or that hole does open up, I'll be ready for that situation and hopefully break for a touchdown and contribute to a team win." 

Goodson describes the rush offense through four games as "on and off." He sees the difference in the two as what they can control, not what other teams are doing to them.

When Iowa has been on, they've hit for explosive plays. Three of Goodson's five touchdown runs this season are of at least 35 yards. He's had a few more of 20-plus yards, too. These runs are examples of what can happen when everything on offense works as one. 

"Starting up front, quarterback has to make the right ID point," Goodson said. "Once you get the ID point, the center calls the front he identifies. From there it's either (the linemen) double-teaming to get somebody or single block to get somebody. 

"Coming to the back end and the running backs, it's all about being patient. Allowing them to block the guy, setting up blocks for us to be successful.

When one of those things aren't aligned, "off" plays happen. For example, one play after Goodson's 22-yard catch to start the second half against Colorado State, true freshman Connor Colby failed to reach his man in an outside-zone run and it resulted in a 1-yard loss. Colby was making his first career start for injured sophomore Justin Britt.

Execution errors can happen when dealing with a young, inexperienced and banged-up offensive line. Moving forward, Britt "looks fine" in practice after missing last week, according to head coach Kirk Ferentz. Senior Kyler Schott is also continuing to make strides in his injury recovery. 

Ferentz believes the issues in the run game are rooted in execution, lack of experience and the all-important little things. 

"There's a couple of run plays I'm thinking of in particular," Ferentz said. "Like 47 and 52 on our sheet, where we're this close to just popping one up the middle. 

"If we're just a little better on an angle or a little bit more delay here as you're coming through on a block, that type of thing, all of a sudden, now the back is up into the secondary, and a guy like Tyler might be able to do something like that." 

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Iowa running back Tyler Goodson (15) entered the 2021 season as one of the most heralded running backs in the country. As a result, opposing defenses are keying in on stopping him first and foremost.

Offensive line aside, Goodson is a tough critic of himself. He studies film closely to pinpoint where he could improve to help the rushing offense. There've been moments in film sessions where he saw an opportunity to gain a few more yards. He's actively working to hone in on those little things. 

"Sometimes just planting my foot and go forward," Goodson said. "Not always look for the big play and getting my pads down a little bit more. Working on a little bit more technique in the pass game. Just little things I look at to make sure I know so when the next game comes I'll be ready for it." 

It's also important to note the total rush offense metric goes beyond running backs. Sacks taken by quarterbacks and other negative plays subtract from total numbers. An example of a negative play in this context is Charlie Jones' muffed handoff in the fourth quarter of last Saturday's game that resulted in a 13-yard loss. 

Iowa can live with short yardage gains here and there. But negative plays not only hurt the rushing bottom line, they stall drives.

"Those are the bigger concerns," Ferentz said. "The little (concerns), if you run it up in there for 1 yard or something like that, it doesn't kill you, but those kinds of plays really kill drives. It's just all part of execution. A lot of it's concentration. A lot of it is just a little more experience and interaction with whatever situation might present itself." 

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That's not to say Iowa's overall rush offense isn't a legitimate concern. It's arguably the biggest on offense right now, but coaches and players haven't pressed the panic button yet. The best remedy goes back to what Ferentz said they needed at the conclusion of Colorado State: a little better game plan and a little better execution. 

With stopping Iowa's rush offense as the focal point of defense's game plans, a possible solution could come from quarterback Spencer Petras and the emergence of the deep passing game.

"The reason I think we've been on and off is the little things we haven't been doing," Goodson said. "Just getting to our assignment. One guy misses his assignment and the whole play can break down. That's just the game of football. 

"As we keep going and going, we have to know our assignment, where to go and how to get to that guy to be successful in the run game and pass game."

A potential antidote for Iowa's rushing struggles could come from the recent emergence in the deep passing game. Last Saturday, Iowa's offense hit their big play quota thanks to five passes of 20-plus yards or more by quarterback Spencer Petras. 

Goodson was on the receiving end of one of those catches. He sees more opportunities in the pass game as a way to open up the ground game. 

"Teams are starting to realize that No. 7 can throw the ball," Goodson said. "By doing that, it's going to allow us to be successful in the run game, it's going to allow for teams respecting our guys on the outside. Knowing (the receivers) had such a big game last Saturday goes to show it's not just the running game that makes our team successful." 

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Overall, Goodson's individual rushing numbers are fine: 364 yards (sixth in the Big Ten) and 4.6 yards per carry. But he knows that more is needed starting Friday at Maryland.

Opponents' strategies won't change. If you're playing Iowa, you need to stop the run. It's no secret. The entire offense is embracing that challenge, though, and understands the only way to counteract it is with consistent, excellent execution.

"I don't think any running back likes looking at a full box," Goodson said. "But it is what it is; that's a part of the game. You just have to fight through it and find ways to get those guys out the box and open up the box so we can have a successful run game. And I think this team does a good job of that." 

Kennington Smith is the new Iowa Hawkeyes beat writer for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at ksmith@gannett.com