EVANSTON, Ill. – Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz planned to test a pair of his young running backs during the upcoming bye week. He wanted Akrum Wadley and Derrick Mitchell Jr. to absorb hits in practice and prove that they can hang onto the ball.
No need now.
Starting Running Back Jordan Canzeri left in the first half of Saturday’s game here at Ryan Field with an ankle injury and did not return. Wadley and Mitchell Jr. filled the void by combining for 283 rushing yards and five touchdowns on 36 carries.
"They were both on my scrimmage list for next week during the bye week. We’ll count those snaps today, maybe, as part of that," Ferentz said with a laugh. "The biggest thing for both of those guys has been ball security and they stepped up big. I think they kind of got caught up in the wave with the rest of the team. We needed them badly."
Canzeri carried just four times for 1 yard before leaving Saturday’s game. He rushed 43 times for 256 yards in last week’s 29-20 win against Illinois.
"(Wadley and Mitchell Jr.) did a great job," Iowa Quarterback C.J. Beathard said. "Canzeri, unfortunately, got hurt early in the game and Derrick and Akrum stepped in and did a great job. We know the talent they have. They do it all the time against our defense and they did a great job stepping in today."
Beathard practiced very little this week and was hobbled with a leg injury. He admitted to it slowing his ability to run on Saturday so it benefitted him greatly that Wadley and Mitchell were able to keep things rolling even without Canzeri and LeShun Daniels (ankle), who opened the season as the starter but has missed the last two weeks.
"Obviously, (Canzeri is) a big back for us, our guy right now," Beathard said. "But it wasn’t a big blow because we expect the next man in to do a great job. And Akrum and Derrick did a great job stepping in there. That’s just the way the season has gone so far. We’ve had Drew (Ott) hurt. Our left and right tackles going out but we haven’t been down at all about that."
Wadley wasted little time getting started on his way to 204 yards and four touchdowns on 26 carries. He scored Iowa’s first touchdown on a 35-yard sprint down the left sideline at the beginning of the second quarter.
"I knew I was going to get some carries," the redshirt sophomore from New Jersey said. "Nobody expected Jordan Canzeri to go down. He’s a great back. All they told me was to hold onto the ball high and tight. That’s been my big problem. No fumbles today, so that’s a good deal."
Wadley carried 15 times for 106 yards and a touchdown last year in a 48-7 win against Northwestern. After showing off his ability to see the hole, cut through it and make people miss, he struggled to hang onto the ball. He fumbled on his third carry of this season and has had to earn trust back from his teammates and coaches.
Wadley leaned on a spin move that seemed to lead to ball security issues in the past. He’s scrapped it, for the most part.
"I’m trying not to spin. If I don’t have to spin, I’m not spinning," he said.
Mitchell Jr. moved to running back from receiver in the off-season. The redshirt sophomore from St. Louis has been slowed by injuries throughout this season.
"It’s been tough but I just stuck with the process. I trusted Coach Ferentz that he was going to put me in good positions to succeed playing football here at Iowa. It’s been fun just changing positions and just going forward," he said.
Mitchell also caught three passes for 43 yards on Saturday to go with 10 carries for 79 yards and a touchdown. He hauled in a 23-yarder from Beathard on a scramble on a third-and-five play to start the fourth quarter.
"During the play we were actually talking to each other. He just told me to get ready. He just tossed it to me and I just tried to make something happen after the toss," he said.
Ferentz said Saturday that Daniels was close to returning for the Northwestern game, which means he’ll likely be back after the bye barring any setbacks. Canzeri’s status was up in the air, according to the coach.
No matter how it shakes out, Iowa found out here on Saturday that they own some solid depth at running back.
"It’s a great experience. It’s a huge confidence booster going into the bye week. I just want to keep it up, keep the momentum. I don’t want to get too comfortable," Wadley said.