Iowa football's offensive line played well at Northwestern. Was it a fluke or are things getting better?
On Tuesday, Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz and players spoke extensively to how good it felt to get back to winning.
After two bad losses, Iowa bounced back to defeat Northwestern 17-12 last Saturday. A few position groups returned to form but the biggest improvement came from the offensive line.
The unit paved the way for Iowa to rush for 4.9 yards per rush and 185 total yards, the most since Kent State in week three. They surrendered two sacks but that's a drastic improvement from six allowed against Wisconsin and four allowed against Purdue.
Ferentz said after Saturday's game that he hoped what he saw during the game showed up on film.
On Tuesday, he confirmed it did.
"The guys are growing. We're seeing that," Ferentz said. "It's hard to articulate line play, especially I've always had a hard time. But you can see by the way they're playing, the tempo, the confidence, aggressiveness, those two things usually go hand in hand. Just a little bit better on little details, technique, those types of things."
In addition to the qualities that Ferentz named, continuity is just as important. As a result of injury this year, there hasn't been much of it. Prior to Northwestern, Iowa started four different offensive line combinations. They'll start their fifth against Minnesota.
Redshirt freshman left tackle Mason Richman went down to injury last week and will miss some time. Backup right tackle Jack Plumb filled in for Richman during the game and will start in his place. Redshirt freshman Tyler Elsbury appeared on the depth chart this week as the backup left tackle.
"(Tyler) understands what he's doing," Ferentz said. "It's continual growth. Continuing to increase your tempo. The pace you play at, those kinds of things. Part of that is confidence. Part is repetition and getting more settled in. But it's next man in. It's like we're not the only ones"
Good news for the Hawkeyes is that guard Cody Ince is expected to return. But the lack of depth could mean more re-shuffling.
"(Connor) Colby could slide out," Ferentz said. "You hate to take a guy who is in his first year playing and move him around too much. Didn't seem to have a problem in camp. Keep all options open until we get this thing settled down a little bit."
Outside of players outright missing games to injury, there are others who are playing through lingering injuries like Kyler Schott. As a result, Iowa hasn't been able to practice at their usual capacity and that hurts development during the week.
"That's really kind of hurt us," Ferentz said. "We're not the most experienced group and then I think probably the biggest thing is we haven't been able to practice they way we want to on a routine basis, and not seeing that progress as fast as you hoped."
A positive sign for the line is that Schott played every snap against Northwestern and was the second-highest graded Iowa lineman (75.9) by Pro Football Focus. The top three graded linemen were all interior: Schott, Tyler Linderbaum (89.5) and Connor Colby (73).
Against Minnesota, the seventh-ranked defense in the country, continuing to run the ball effectively will be critical. Iowa's offensive line earned a considerably higher rating in run blocking (72) than pass blocking (66). Gaining momentum in the rush offense to allow for quarterback Alex Padilla to operate the play-action pass could spell success on Saturday.
"It makes the world a lot better," Ferentz said. "Hopefully (Northwestern) will be the start of building something good. If we're going to be successful here down the stretch and the weather can change here all of those things so we need to be able to run the football."
Kennington Lloyd Smith III covers Iowa Hawkeyes football and men's basketball for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.