By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The Iowa football team is 3-0 heading into Saturday’s game against Middle Tennessee State and coming off a bye week that allowed the players to rest, recover and watch football for a change.
And barring one of the biggest upsets in program history, or at least since Central Michigan defeated Iowa in 2012, Iowa should improve to 4-0 for the fifth time in 21 seasons under Kirk Ferentz.
So these are good times right now, but there is one statistic from Iowa’s 18-17 victory at Iowa State on Sept. 14 that could be a sign of potential trouble, and that statistic is similar to Iowa’s current record, but in this case, it’s 3.0, which is how many yards that Iowa averaged per carry against the Cyclones.
Actually, it was 3.02 yards that Iowa averaged against Iowa State, with 112 rushing yards on 37 carries.
The good news is that Iowa had an explosive running play for a change as Mekhi Sargent gained 22 yards on a carry against the Cyclones.
The bad news is that if you take away that run, Iowa averaged just 2.5 yards on its other 36 rushing attempts, and that’s a concern because the first step in defeating Iowa is containing its running game.
You could say that about a lot of teams, but it’s especially true in the case of Iowa where the running game performs almost like oil does for a car.
If the running game breaks down, the machine ultimately breaks downs, and that often leads to difficulty against good teams on the road.
The game in Ames was an exception, partly because the Cyclones self-destructed by committing two game-changing turnovers.
It’s hard to see Iowa winning any of its remaining four road games if its averages just 3.0 yards per carry as a team.
Iowa offensive linemen have said over the years that yards-per-carry as a team is what they consider the most telling statistic.
Fans and the media mostly pay attention to total yards, but it is yards-per-carry that former Iowa offensive linemen such as Austin Blythe and Keegan Render say that matters the most.
So if that truly is the case, isn’t there reason to be concerned about Iowa averaging just 3.02 yards per carry against the Cyclones?
Or is that an over-reaction because it’s just one game against a quality opponent with a veteran defense?
Judging from Kirk Ferentz’s answer on Tuesday when asked if he was pleased with the running game against Iowa State, it’s the latter.
“I think it was effective,” Ferentz said. “They are a really challenging defensive football team to prepare for and play against. They play extremely aggressive and I think what we did in that ballgame was effective, run and pass, and you know, as good as anything, we didn't turn the ball over which really, really helped us win the football game.”
Iowa is currently ranked seventh in the Big Ten in rushing, averaging a respectable 173.0 yards per game.
Wisconsin, not surprisingly, leads the conference in rushing with a 277.3 per-game average.
The Badgers are almost always a better version of Iowa when it comes to a rushing attack, sometimes significantly better.
If you were to rank the one thing about Hawkeye football under Kirk Ferentz that is the most over-rated, the running game should get serious consideration.
That isn’t to say that Iowa is a poor running team, but it isn't always the formidable ground force that it’s known for being under Ferentz.
Iowa only finished ninth in the Big Ten in rushing last season with a 148.4 per-game average.
The pieces are certainly in place for Iowa to have a productive running game this season with four reliable running backs and an offensive line that when healthy has arguably the best pair of offensive tackles in the Big Ten in juniors Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs.
Jackson has missed the last two games because of a knee injury, and isn’t expected to play against Middle Tennessee State on Saturday.
But it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Detroit native returns for the Michigan game on Oct. 5th in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday that sophomore guard Kyler Schott will be out for a few weeks because of an injury, but Ferentz also said that junior Cole Banwart is now healthy and would replace Schott in the starting lineup.
Banwart started seven games at right guard last season, and held his own.
As for the running backs, junior Mekhi Sargent is the starter and leads the team with 40 rushing attempts for 202 yards, which translate to an impressive 5.2 yards-per-carry average.
But Sargent is also part of a running back by committee that features fellow juniors Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin and true freshman Tyler Goodson.
Young and Goodson both have 22 carries for 120 and 105 yards, respectively, while Kelly-Martin has rushed five times for 20 yards and caught two passes for 25 yards.
Kelly-Martin was on the field at the start of the Iowa State game after having had no rushing attempts in the first two games.
It seems clear that Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, who is Kirk Ferentz’s son, trusts his top four running backs enough to use them at any time in a game.
“It's really rare and they are all a little different as you know,” Kirk Ferentz said of Iowa’s four-man rotation at running back. “Take Goodson out of the equation. The other three guys are players we know pretty well. They have been here now — second year where they have all been prominent, all three of the backs, you talk about Mekhi or Ivory or Toren are all better players than they were last season and certainly gives us a little dimension. It's a little bit unique.
“The trick is to figure out how to get them in and out of the game. Right now, offensively, and I think it's true defensively, too, I think everybody — nobody is counting plays. They are just playing. That's all we are asking them to do is go in there and do what they can do, and I think we're pleased with what we're seeing so far.”
Goodson came to Iowa from Georgia as the player of the year in his state, which is loaded with top-level talent.
The Iowa coaches might have thought at one point that Goodson would appear in four games and still be redshirted this season because of all the experience ahead of him at running back.
But Goodson apparently had other plans and has since shown that he deserves to play.
A four-player rotation might sound like a lot, but running back is a position that can be depleted in a hurry.
There is also competition in practice that should bring out the best in the running backs, because anything less might be costly in terms of playing time.
“We’re all still competing and all that competition is just making us better,” said Kelly-Martin, who started six games last season, including the season opener.
Kelly-Martin was asked on Tuesday what he sees his role being at this stage.
His answer was encouraging from a team chemistry standpoint, and from a leadership standpoint.
“I’ve been just trying to implement my athletic ability in any way I can, whether that’s getting in on special teams a little bit more, or helping out with, I know Tyler is a younger guys, helping out with him as much as I can, so he can understand the offense and also just helping out with the other backs and continuing to compete against each other so we can all continue to improve as players,” Kelly-Martin said.
The jury still is out on the Iowa running game for this season, but the pieces are certainly in place for Iowa to live up to its reputation as a running team, including depth and versatility.
So maybe Iowa’s 3.02 yards-per-carry average against Iowa State was an aberration, or maybe it says more about Iowa State’s defense being rock solid than Iowa’s running game being suspect.
Whatever the case, Iowa’s schedule will definitely bring out the answer.