IOWA CITY, Iowa – Of all the low points to the Iowa football team’s 2014 season, its second-half offensive meltdown against Iowa State was among the lowest.
An Iowa State team that surrendered at least 30 points against every opponent except Iowa last season overcame a 14-3 halftime deficit to defeat the listless Hawkeyes 20-17 at Kinnick Stadium.
It’s still hard to believe, and to comprehend, the sobering fact that Iowa was held to just 275 yards against Iowa State last season, including 102 in the second half. Iowa averaged just 4.04 yards in 68 plays against Iowa State last season.
The Hawkeyes also averaged just 2.9 yards per rushing attempt as a team against Iowa State a year ago, finishing with a measly 129 yards on 44 carries.
Concerns about Iowa’s rushing attack already had surfaced from the previous game last season when Ball State held the Hawkeyes to 113 rushing yards on 29 carries. The Ball State game was much closer than expected as Iowa hung to win 17-13 at Kinnick Stadium against a team from the Mid-American Conference that would go on to finish 5-7 last season.
I bring up those back-to-back clunkers because in many ways they symbolize what went wrong last season and help set the stage for Saturday’s rematch with Iowa State in Ames.
It’s worth noting that 2014 Outland Trophy winner Brandon Scherff injured his knee against Ball State and then had it scoped on the Tuesday before the Iowa State game. However, Scherff went the distance against Iowa State, and yet, Iowa still couldn’t run effectively despite him leading the way at left tackle.
The rise of C.J. Beathard as the Iowa quarterback has grabbed most of the attention because he’s a quarterback, but also because his arm strength is supposed to make Iowa more explosive on offense.
We didn’t see much explosiveness from Beathard and his cohorts in Iowa’s 31-14 victory over Illinois State in the season opener last Saturday because it wasn’t necessary.
Iowa dominated the game behind a methodical rushing attack that gained 210 yards and averaged a respectable 4.8 yards per carry. Junior LeShun Daniels rushed for a career-high 123 yards in his first career start, while senior backup Jordan Canzeri complemented him with 28 rushing yards and 90 receiving yards, 51 of which came on a screen pass.
“I’ve read about our shortcomings in the running game for obvious reasons if anybody watched us practice in Des Moines or the open scrimmage,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. “It’s hard to run against our guys, first and foremost, and we’re not doing everything. But I’ve just really been pleased with both LeShun and Jordan Canzeri what we’ve seen them do, the way they’ve practiced in spring practice, this camp.
“So I’m very hopeful. I think they complement each other well and hopeful that we can just keep building on that."
The performance of the Iowa offensive line was a pleasant surprise last Saturday, considering that sophomore left tackle Boone Myers and sophomore right tackle Ike Boettger both were starting for the first time. They both had struggled during the open spring practice in West Des Moines and during Iowa’s Kids Day scrimmage on Aug. 15, but not against the Redbirds last Saturday.
Beathard did his part against Illinois State by passing for 211 yards, but it was Iowa’s rushing attack that set the stage for last Saturday’s unexpected rout.
The same thing has to happen against Iowa State. It’s hard to picture Iowa defeating the Cyclones for just the second time in the last five games without having a productive rushing attack.
And by productive, I mean no fewer than 200 rushing yards.
Gaining that many rushing yards would take some time. The more time it takes, though, the better because that would keep Allen Lazard on the sideline watching instead of catching passes and returning punts for the Cyclones.
Illinois State only had one offensive possession in the first quarter last Saturday because Iowa’s ground attack was consuming the clock.
Iowa’s rushing attack looked more in sync and more explosive last Saturday compared to a year ago. How much of that had to do with the opponent, and how much of it had to do with Iowa’s change in personnel at running back is hard to say.
It’s also hard to know for sure how much Brian Ferentz being Iowa’s new running game coordinator impacted last Saturday’s game. Maybe it was just a coincidence, but it’s hard to argue with the results.
Nobody would benefit more from Iowa having a potent rushing attack than Beathard. Imagine the possibilities with Beathard downfield if opposing defenses have to load the box in order to contain Iowa’s ground game.
I understand that Iowa fans want the offense to be more explosive and more exciting with Beathard throwing lasers down field. There will be times when that happens this season, perhaps on Saturday.
But Iowa football is mostly about running between the tackles mixed in with opportunistic, play-action passing. That’s what happened last Saturday and everybody seems to have been pleased with the entertainment value.