IOWA CITY, Iowa – A formula for a combustible situation presented itself on Saturday. Iowa’s offensive line deserved credit for not coming apart during a time of adversity.
Already without starting left tackle Boone Myers, the Hawkeyes lost right tackle Ike Boettger to injury for the second half of a 29-20 win against Illinois. Starting right guard Jordan Walsh also was sidelined in the first half but was able to return after the intermission.
As a result, left tackle Cole Croston, starting his second career game, and Austin Blythe, a senior center, were the only offensive linemen to take every snap Saturday at the same spot. Walsh, Boettger and left guard Sean Welsh also started.
True freshman James Daniels rotated in with Welsh at left guard has he’s done throughout the season. He remained in the game when Walsh went out and Welsh flipped over to right guard. When Boettger was hurt, Walsh returned to right guard, Welsh went back to left guard and Daniels slipped out to right tackle.
Through it all, Iowa running back Jordan Canzeri set a school mark for carries in a game (43) in rushing for 256 yards. He was named the Big Ten’s Offensive Player of the Week on Monday.
"I try to look at things as how we perform as a unit," Welsh said. "Our philosophy around here is the next man in. It doesn’t matter who goes down or what happens, it’s the next guy and he’s expected to do his job just like the starters."
Players must approach it that way. Hanging their heads and feeling sorry for themselves dooms them for failure.
But there’s a reason starters are starters. Theoretically, at least, they’re on the field because they’re the best at their given position. And that’s even more pronounced on the offensive line where continuity between the members is paramount to success.
At Iowa, with its zone blocking schemes, they rely even more on the fluidity of the offensive line members working together. One guy goes the wrong way and the stuff can hit the fan.
"A lot of ups and downs, especially in the first half, a lot of turbulence. But that’s football," Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said of his offensive line play. "We knew (the Illini) were better, and they threw some stuff at us (Saturday) that was a little bit out of character for them, too. They did some things, to their credit, little wrinkles that made it a little tough on us, and some of it is just fundamental stuff.
"But we’ll get that corrected and we’ll try to make some improvement here this coming week and get ready for another challenge."
It’s too early to say what Iowa’s offensive front will look like when they play at No. 20 Northwestern (11 a.m., ESPN) on Saturday. Boettger and Myers are questionable for the contest and not listed on the depth chart released on Tuesday.
Daniels is entering new territory for Ferentz, the dean of Big Ten coaches in his 17th season and offensive line guru. He’s the first true freshman in memory to be playing multiple spots on the front. That’s a challenge.
"I just got asked on the radio how much he’s played tackle. I said, probably not enough," Ferentz joked during Saturday’s post-game press conference. "He’s done a little bit in practice, but with Boone out, we’re getting a little bit thin. He’s worked out there a little, and it was tough sledding."
Daniels held up fine in the running game as he has most of the season. The Warren (OH) Harding High product was plugging away on a key 59-yard, fourth-quarter drive that saw Canzeri carry the ball 11 times in a row and Marshall Koehn’s 34-yard field goal give the winners a 26-20 lead.
Daniels struggled with pass protection at tackle but he had company. In fact, quarterback C.J. Beathard has taken a beating in the pocket for much of the season.
"For James to be thrown into that situation, this will be a great learning experience. Same thing with Jerminic Smith, our other freshman who was out there playing (Saturday)," Ferentz said. "You’ve got to start somewhere. So these are all really positive experiences, and if we can go through some of those turbulent spots and still come out with a victory, to me I see that as a real positive as we go down the road."
Jerminic Smith has started the last two games for the No. 17 Hawkeyes (6-0 overall, 2-0 Big Ten) in place of senior Tevaun Smith (knee). The true freshman from Texas caught four passes for 118 yards against Illinois.
Tevaun Smith is ruled out for the Northwestern game. That means the Hawkeyes could have two true freshmen starting in Evanston in Jerminic Smith and James Daniels.
"James is a great athlete and I think he did a great job (Saturday)," Welsh said. "He had his moments, but we all did."
Said Jordan Walsh: "I knew he was athletic enough to play tackle I just didn’t know when his name was going to be called to play tackle. But he did a good job."
MOTIVATION: Since legendary Iowa Coach Hayden Fry told his Northwestern counterpart Gary Barnett he hoped the Hawkeyes didn’t hurt any of his players in the early ’90s, this rivalry has amped up over the years. The next chapter was expected to be added Saturday at Ryan Field with both teams ranked and fighting for the West Division.
Northwestern announced on Monday that Barnett would be their honorary captain this week. The Wildcats also displayed the 1995 retro uniforms they’d be wearing Saturday to honor their Big Ten champion team from that season. Coach Pat Fitzgerald played linebacker on that squad.
Northwestern began the season 5-0 before getting smashed, 38-0, at Michigan Saturday. Fitzgerald wouldn’t take the bait on the salty history with Iowa for Homecoming bringing more juice to the game.
"I think there’s added motivation because they’re in the driver’s seat for the Big Ten West," he said.
Fitzgerald, who broke his leg against Iowa in the second to last game of the ’95 season, has expressed his dislike for the Hawkeyes in the past and it’s blown back on him. These week’s honoring of the ’95 team, Barnett as captain and it being Homecoming said everything about how he and the Wildcats feel about the opponent.
And then there was this story from ’10.
— #B1GCats Football (@NUFBFamily) October 12, 2015
HANGING WITH THE ENEMY: Perhaps it was just a matter of time before someone in Iowa’s large 2016 recruiting class (23 known verbals) swayed from the pack. And it probably shouldn’t have been a surprise that it was Omaha South’s Noah Fant.
Historically, the Hawkeyes haven’t pulled many players out of Nebraska who held Husker scholarship offers. Seth Olsen might have been the only one in the Ferentz Era.
Still, seeing Fant at Nebraska’s game Saturday against Wisconsin wearing red irritated some Iowa fans. And I couldn’t blame them.
I don’t like it. I think it’s disrespectful. But I’m old school in that way.
I also cover recruiting and understand kids wanting to be sure. There’s a new coaching staff in Lincoln and they’re trying to build a relationship with the TE/DE Rivals ranks second in the state regardless of position. Iowa can relate having done the same with Ross Pierschbacher and Allen Lazard.
If Fant isn’t completely sold on Iowa, which it sounds like based on this story we published Sunday, then it’s best for him to look around. There are too many transfers these days so it’s best he do all of his homework. He says Iowa is the best fit for him now but is allowing the possibility for that to change and schools pull offers to players, too.
So, why commit if you’re not 100 percent sure? Perhaps the better question is why do we use the word "committed" in recruiting anymore with the flipping and transferring that goes on. It certainly doesn’t carry the same meaning as it used to.
LINE MOVEMENT: Iowa opened as a 2.5-3.0-point favorite on Sunday, a number that quickly dropped to a pick ’em. When I looked Monday, the Hawkeyes were favored by one.
It might seem wacky that people are betting on Northwestern considering how it got destroyed at Michigan. But the Wildcats have beaten two teams – Stanford (15) and Duke (25) – currently ranked in the AP Top 25. And, they won in Durham.
-Let’s hope USC Coach Steve Sarkisian receives the help he needs for what appears to be a drinking problem based on reports. That said, the Trojans should move in a different direction for their head coach. Both he and the school need a change.
USC athletic director Pat Haden announces the termination of Steve Sarkisian as head football coach: http://t.co/KrqKSEf2hG
— USC Trojans (@USC_Athletics) October 12, 2015
-Speaking of coaches, two of them on Iowa’s schedule this season already have been dismissed. Maryland let go of Randy Edsall and North Texas did the same with Iowa City native Dan McCarney. Both schools would have been better served to wait until the end of the season for change. Instead they chose to disrupt the lives of the student-athletes they’re supposed to care about.
-C.J. Beathard quarterbacking Iowa against former Hawkeye Jake Rudock and Michigan in the Big Ten title game? A few months ago, it was said tongue in cheek. While it’s still a stretch with Ohio State’s presence, it’s not an outlandish wish. Man, that would be fun.
-Dillon Kidd’s ability to flush last season and become a consistent punter has proved invaluable to a Hawkeye team needing to grind out victories. His 46.1-yard average through six games put him second in the conference and 11th nationally. Seven of his 22 punts have been downed inside the opponents’ 20, including two crucial ones in the fourth quarter Saturday.