IOWA CITY, Iowa – The tough part is knowing where to start with praise.
It could be C.J. Beathard’s feathery touch or Matt VandeBerg’s sure hands or Desmond King’s coverage and return skills or the one-two punch from running backs LeShun Daniels and Akrum Wadley or the commanding presence of middle linebacker Josey Jewell or the ruggedness of defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson in the trenches.
There is so much to like about the Iowa football team in the wake of Saturday’s 42-3 drubbing of Iowa State at Kinnick Stadium.
It has only been two games, but the Hawkeyes have combined to score 87 points, surpassing 40 points in each of the first two games in a season for just the second time in 18 seasons under head coach Kirk Ferentz.
The defense struggled at times in the 45-21 victory over Miami of Ohio in the season opener, but it didn’t have Jewell leading the way for all but three minutes of the game after he was disqualified for targeting early in the first quarter.
Against the Cyclones, Iowa’s defense pretty much had its way, forcing nine punts and just 3-of-15 conversions on third down.
So where do you start with the praise?
I say start with the offensive line, where so much of Iowa’s success originates.
Don’t get me wrong, Beathard’s impact is immeasurable, how he makes key plays at key times while inspiring confidence in his teammates.
But without the offensive line, Beathard is sort of like Mick Jagger without the rest of the Rolling Stones. Every star needs a supporting cast and Beathard certainly has that in the offensive line, which played Saturday without starting center James Daniels because of a knee injury.
The two most telling statistics at this early stage are directly related to the offensive line. One is Iowa’s rushing average of 205.0 yards per game, while the other is Iowa’s average of 6.3 yards per carry as a team.
Any team that averages at least 200 rushing yards per game is usually difficult to defeat because that team is not only controlling the line of scrimmage on offense, but also the clock and the tempo of the game.
It is no coincidence that Iowa won 12 games during a 2015 season in which the Hawkeyes averaged around 200 rushing yards per game for most of the season. The average dipped to 181.7 yards per game by end of the season, but that was due to Iowa only gaining 52 yards against Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game and 48 yards against Stanford in the Rose Bowl.
It also probably isn’t a coincidence that Iowa’s rushing attack has improved considerably since Brian Ferentz became the running game coordinator before the 2015 season, in addition to already coaching the offensive line.
Kirk Ferentz’s oldest of five children has risen quickly in the coaching ranks, partly because of his father’s influence, but also because of Brian’s performance on the job.
Remember the dire circumstances for the Northwestern game last season when the Iowa offensive line was depleted by injuries?
The next-man-in battle cry turned into the next-men-in battle cry as Iowa’s short-handed offensive line paved the way for 294 rushing yards during a 40-10 victory at Northwestern.
Brian Ferentz deserves much of the credit for that, for maintaining stability during an unstable time.
It makes sense that Brian Ferentz coaches the offensive line because that was the position he played at Iowa under his father from 2002-05. Kirk Ferentz also coached the Iowa offensive line from 1981-89.
It’s in their blood to coach in the trenches.
Iowa lost two key pieces to last season’s offensive line with the graduation of all-Big Ten center Austin Blythe and all-Big Ten guard Jordan Walsh.
But the current group hasn’t lost any effectiveness, suggesting that Iowa is reloading more than rebuilding under Brian Ferentz, although, it’s still too early to know for sure.
Brian Ferentz was instrumental in getting Lucas LeGrand ready for his first career start on Saturday against the Cyclones. The 6-foot-5, 290-pound LeGrand held his own for the most part.
“You never like to lose a player, but I think we were all confident that he would step in there,” Kirk Ferentz said of LeGrand, a third-year sophomore from Dubuque. “His teammates all support him and he did a really nice job tonight from the sideline.”
The Iowa offense hardly looks conservative when the running game is being productive. Much of what Iowa likes to do on offense relies on having a potent rushing attack.
Defenses are forced to crowd the box, but that’s when Beathard and VandeBerg take over down field. The victory over Iowa State was a fine example of a balanced offense shredding a defense that was on its heels.
"We have to give credit to them, they controlled the line of scrimmage in the middle," Iowa State coach Matt Cambell said of the Iowa offensive line. "That was the difference in the game."
Up next for Iowa is a game against five-time defending FCS national champion North Dakota State on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.
Nothing against the Bison, but the Iowa offensive line should control the action in the trenches.
Daniels is expected to return by Saturday and will join an experienced group that is playing with tremendous poise and confidence.
Ike Boettger has gone from being an intriguing prospect at right tackle to now almost being a finished product as a fourth-year junior.
Starting left tackle Cole Croston is a 307-pound fifth-year senior who simply worked his way up the depth chart after joining the program as a 240-pound walk-on.
Croston, who is the son of former Iowa all-Big Ten offensive lineman Dave Croston, represents so much of what Iowa football stands for under Kirk Ferentz’s leadership.
Cole Croston had to walk before he could run, but now it’s full steam ahead.
The Iowa football program is on a roll right now, winners of 14 of its last 16 games dating back to last season.
Beathard has received most of the attention. But the performance of the offensive line under Brian Ferentz has been equally important because you can’t have one without the other.