Iowa football's key to beating Wisconsin? 'We have to run the ball to have a chance to win'
In last year's Wisconsin game, Iowa running back Tyler Goodson and center Tyler Linderbaum shared a moment that will remembered by Hawkeyes fans for a while.
With four minutes and nine seconds remaining and the Hawkeyes leading 21-7, Goodson took a carry 80 yards for a touchdown that sealed the game. Running nearly stride for stride with him most of the way and the first player in the end zone to congratulate him was Linderbaum, the team's hulking offensive lineman standout.
"It was just a special play," Goodson said. "I looked up at the jumbotron and said 'Man, he's kind of moving.' For me to look up and see how how happy my lineman was behind me running, I should've given the ball to him so he could score the touchdown."
That play put an exclamation point on Iowa's 2020 campaign. The Hawkeyes' final two games were canceled due to COVID-19 issues, but that win over Wisconsin ended a four-game losing streak in the series and secured the Heartland Trophy. On the day, Iowa averaged 6.5 yards per carry, led by Goodson's 9.3 yards per carry with 106 yards on 11 rushes.
The 2021 game will require another dazzling performance from Goodson, Linderbaum and Iowa's rush offense if they're going to capture consecutive wins over Wisconsin.
The Hawkeyes' struggling run game has been a focal point throughout this season. Iowa ranks No. 12 in the Big Ten total rushing yards, yards per carry and yards per game compared. Last season, they ranked at least fifth in those categories.
The challenge to jumpstart the ground game in the second half of the season is compounded by their opponent Saturday: Wisconsin first in the conference in every rush defense statistic. Last week, Badgers held Purdue to -13 yards rushing.
Yes, you read that right.
"Their interior guys are big," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Their linebackers can play center. Probably bigger than Linderbaum. That's how they're wired. That's how they're built. It's worked really well for them.
"I'm not saying they're the New York Giants defense in '86, but … if you look at the size of the guys on those two units, big people. Super veteran on the back end. All those guys are like three-year starters. Kind of hard to find the weakness in there."
At the heart of Iowa's rushing attack are two all-conference performers: Goodson and Linderbaum. As leaders on offense but specifically two of the most important parts of the run game, they're taking it upon themselves to prepare their respective groups for what's to come Saturday and the rest of the season.
Goodson shares carries with senior and captain on Saturday Ivory Kelly-Martin but Linderbaum's challenge is more difficult with Iowa's youth along the offensive line.
"Just making sure our young guys are ready to go and to play, mentally," Goodson said. "We have a lot of young guys up there that's playing for the first time. I know Linderbaum's going to be ready, that's without question. I know myself and the running back room will be ready so it's all about making sure our young guys know where to go, what to do and who to block."
One advantage for Iowa is that they're coming off an off week ahead of Saturday's game. Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz talked last week about using that time to unlock stalled out parts of the Hawkeyes offense.
"During the bye week we got back to our fundamentals," guard Kyler Schott said. "Maybe during the last seven weeks we didn't have time to focus on fundamentals, maybe focusing too much on the game, the game, the game. So this gave us more time to go back to our fall camp training, fundamentals and smaller details."
In addition to re-focusing on them, Iowa's offensive line will be at full strength this Saturday. Veteran guard Cody Ince is expected to return and Schott, whose been playing while recovering from a foot injury, is as healthy as he's been this fall.
The rush offense has a recent positive experience to draw on. Against Purdue, Goodson averaged 5.6 yards on 12 carries. He only had two carries in the second half, most of that due to how the game got away from Iowa. But that short burst showed what Iowa's rush offense can be if they're consistent.
The challenge now is channeling consistent effort in practice and glimpses in games into dominant performances.
"Too many inconsistencies," Kirk Ferentz said. "That's always a challenge offensively because it does take all 11 to have good execution. You might have a seven, five yard gain. Somebody doesn't get a block downfield, that is doable. (But) you're eliminating those plays that are 15, 20 yards, even beyond that. Those are the battles we're fighting."
How exactly does Iowa attack Wisconsin? The Badgers, like nearly all of Iowa's opponents this year, will sell out to stop the run first.
Small gains don't bother Goodson so long as they're moving ahead. His carry load could mirror that of Penn State where he totaled a season-high 25 times for 88 yards. Those raw numbers aren't eye-popping but the rush offense moved enough to keep the defense honest and set up other opportunities for later in that win.
"It's expected going into the game that it's going to be tough," Goodson. "Every run isn't going to be a big run, it might be two, three, four yards a carry and I'm going to be fine with that. It's all about our execution up front with Linderbaum and the line and then being successful in the pass also to set up the run."
Whether Iowa has a big game on the ground or not is to be seen. What's known? That the key to unlocking the Hawkeye offense starts with winning in the trenches.
"Hopefully we can take a step forward this week," KFerentz said. "It won't be easy. These guys are really good on defense. The run game especially where they average 55 yards (allowed) a game. 200 is probably not realistic, but we have to run the ball to have a chance to win."
Kennington Smith is the Iowa Hawkeyes beat writer for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.