IOWA CITY, Iowa – If I could pick one thing that is mostly responsible for taking the Iowa football team where no other Iowa football team has gone before, my choice might surprise you.
It wouldn’t be the impact of junior quarterback C.J. Beathard or junior defensive back Desmond King, although, both have been hugely impactful this season.
It also wouldn’t be the influence of New Kirk, which is the title given to what is perceived as a more aggressive approach by Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, nor would it be the improvements made by the Iowa defense.
My choice would be the Iowa rushing attack, which paved the way to Saturday’s historic 40-35 victory over Minnesota before a sellour crowd of 70,585 at Kinnick Stadium. Iowa rushed for 272 yards, including a career-high 195 yards by junior LeShun Daniels, while improving to 10-0 for the first time ever.
That is taking nothing away from Daniels because he looked fast and healthy on Saturday. In fact, he made such a nifty move to slip past a defender in the first quarter that I briefly thought he was Akrum Wadley.
But Daniels also was the beneficiary of some real fine blocking in the trenches. He blasted through a couple holes that could’ve fit the Brady Bunch walking side by side, including his 51-yard touchdown run with barely 2 minutes left to play.
“We’re a big-run, play-action team,” senior center Austin Blythe said after Saturday’s victory. “When we get the run game going, that play action opens up and kind of opens up passes down field as well. That’s something that we definitely work to establish early in the game. And I think we did a good job of that today.”
Blythe and his cohorts have done a fantastic job of opening holes all season. Iowa entered Saturday’s game ranked second in the Big Ten in rushing behind only Ohio State, averaging 205.0 yards per game.
That is a significant improvement from last season when the Hawkeyes sputtered on the ground, averaging just 163.1 rushing yards per game.
Beathard deserves credit for helping to improve the rushing attack because defenses have to respect his playmaking ability. Beathard is also more of a threat to run than previous starting quarterback Jake Rudock. Beathard’s mobility has been limited by a nagging groin injury for much of this season, although, he showed little effects of it on Saturday while rushing for 50 yards.
Credit also should go to offensive line coach Brian Ferentz, who is thriving in his expanded role as Iowa’s new running game coordinator. Maybe it is just a coincidence that the rushing attack has made huge strides with Brian Ferentz as the new running game coordinating, but I doubt it.
Iowa’s top priority on offense always should be to establish the running game. There were times last season when the rushing attack was reduced to a support role, like against Maryland when Iowa attempted 56 passes, but the results weren’t good.
Iowa had success in 2004 despite having little to no rushing attack for most of the season. But that was a fluke, made possible by Drew Tate’s all-star performance at quarterback and by a rock-solid defense.
Establishing the running game is usually the first step in having balance on offense. It leads to more play-action passes, which causes more uncertainty on defense. Iowa has been the epitome of balance this season by rushing for 2,117 yards and passing for 2,097 yards in 10 games.
All four of the running backs have been injured at some point this season, and yet the rushing yards keep accumulating. Wadley was withheld from the Minnesota game on Saturday because of an ankle injury. But it didn’t matter because Daniels, Jordan Canzeri and Derrick Mitchell Jr., carried the load, especially the 6-foot, 225-pound Daniels. He showed no effects from a high ankle sprain that he suffered in the second game against Iowa State.
Daniels has only missed two games entirely because of the injury. But he clearly wasn’t himself until the last two games. He probably couldn’t have made some of the moves or had the burst that he showed against the Gophers on Saturday three weeks ago.
“We tried to get him back for a week or two there, and that wasn’t LeShun,” Kirk Ferentz said after Saturday’s victory. “He was running okay. But last week I thought he looked a lot better, and tonight he looked really good, especially on that last touchdown. That was quite a run.”
You could make a case for ranking Beathard’s impact ahead of the improved rushing attack because he truly has been spectacular this season. His ability to convert on third-down has been extraordinary and crucial to Iowa’s success.
But where would Beathard be without having a potent rushing attack? They both feed off each other, but it’s easier for Beathard to do his thing when defenses are pre-occupied with trying to contain Iowa’s rushing attack.
I’m not ready to say the Big Ten Bullies now reside in Iowa City again, but I’m getting closer to saying that. Blythe is arguably the top center in the Big Ten, while fifth-year senior Jordan Walsh is playing at an all-star level at right guard.
Together, they have helped to ease the transition for new starting tackles Boone Myers and Ike Boettger.
Sophomore Sean Welsh also has been steady at left guard, while former walk-on Cole Croston has filled in admirably at both tackle positions when Myers and Boettger have been injured.
Ferentz said he held Wadley out of Saturday’s game mostly as a precautionary measure because of an ankle injury. It sounds as if Wadley could’ve played against Minnesota in an emergency, which means he should be available against Purdue this coming Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.
It’ll be Senior Day against Purdue, so don’t be surprised if Canzeri starts the game and plays a significant role. I’m curious to see how all four running backs are utilized because the LeShun Daniels we saw carving up Minnesota is too good to leave on the bench.
But you could say the same about Canzeri and Wadley, both of whom have rushed for over 200 yards in a game this season. Mitchell also has an important role as Iowa’s third-down back. He had one of Iowa’s best blocks against Minnesota on a play in which he recognized the blitz and kept a defender from having a clear path to hit Beathard.
“Derrick Mitchell didn’t play a huge role tonight, but he did some really good things,” Kirk Ferentz said in his post-game press conference on Saturday. “He had a blitz pick-up that was critical on a big play for us and those are the kind of things that go unnoticed.
“So I’m really happy about the whole group. They’re doing a good job, and the fullbacks continue to play.”
Ferentz was wise to mention the fullbacks because they’re an important piece to the rushing game. Macon Plewa and Adam Cox both do the dirty work at fullback. Blocking is their main priority and they both do it well.
It’ll be interesting to see how Ferentz and offensive coordinator Greg Davis use the running backs down the stretch. Ferentz was asked on Saturday if it’s a case where he will simply use the hot back.
“Hopefully, we have that problem down the road,” Ferentz said. “That would be great. Hopefully, they’re all healthy and hot. That would be really good.”
This season will be remembered for being a season of change with Iowa having a new starting quarterback and with New Kirk running the show. But it also will be remembered as the season in which Iowa rediscovered its once-proud rushing attack.