By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Please, run the ball, and live up to your reputation.
That’s my unsolicited and simple advice for Kirk Ferentz and the Iowa offense with the Sept. 4 season opener against Indiana now less than two weeks away.
Do what you supposedly do best, although, anyone who knows anything about Hawkeye football could tell you that Iowa’s reputation for being a powerhouse rushing offense is not entirely accurate.
Rarely, has Iowa had a potent rushing attack under Kirk Ferentz, despite having had a long and distinguished list of All-Big Ten offensive linemen, many of whom would go on to play in the NFL, some at a star level.
Wisconsin and Iowa often are lumped together as the two Big Ten teams that still rely heavily on a traditional ground attack to methodically move the chains, and to create play action and control tempo.
The Badgers have certainly earned the reputation as one of the nation’s top rushing teams, while Iowa has mostly been average, or below average, under Kirk Ferentz.
Since 2010, Wisconsin has led the Big Ten in rushing three times, and has finished ranked third or higher in the conference in rushing nine times.
Iowa, on the other hand, has finished 10th or lower in the Big Ten in rushing six times during that same 11-year stretch, and has finished no higher than fifth.
So it’s really not even close between the two teams.
There are lots of theories as to why the Badgers have been so much more successful at rushing than Iowa, from having better blocking schemes to having better running backs to having better game plans and in-game adjustments.
But that’s all in the past.
All that matters now is the 2021 season, and each team starts with a clean slate, and with an identity that still has to take shape over time.
Iowa also starts the season with arguably the best center in college football in junior Tyler Linderbaum, and with a first-team All-Big Ten running back in junior Tyler Goodson.
Not since 2003 with Fred Russell, and only twice since 1985, has Iowa had a first-team All-Big Ten running back returning.
So the pieces are in place for Iowa to have a productive rushing attack.
“Every year you’re starting from square one,” said Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, who is Kirk Ferentz’s son, and a former Iowa offensive lineman. “So just going out on the field every day and trying to build that execution, build that timing, build that tempo, run, pass, and everything in between. That’s what it’s going to take.”
The quest for success, however, starts with the running game, or, at least it should based on Iowa’s personnel and style of play under Kirk Ferentz.
Iowa has some talented receivers and strives for balance on offense, and much will be expected from junior quarterback Spencer Petras, who was mostly average as a passer last season. Petras struggled with accuracy, and with touch on shorter throws, and he hardly is a threat to scramble from the pocket.
Petras is a 6-foot-5, 233-pound traditional pro-style quarterback who needs play action to be at this best. And the only way to establish effective play action is by having a successful rushing attack that keeps defenses off balance and guessing at the line of scrimmage.
Iowa has to replace some valuable players on the offensive line, namely Alaric Jackson, who is believed to be the only four-year starter at left tackle in program history.
The loss of Cole Banwart at guard due to graduation, and Mark Kallenberger’s decision to quit playing football despite being in position to start at guard or tackle is also significant.
Kyler Schott’s foot injury is another concern with him expected to miss at least the season opener. Schott is Iowa’s second most experienced offensive lineman behind Linderbaum, and would start at right guard if healthy.
But even with all of those concerns, the offensive line cupboard hardly is bare.
And like Iowa wrestler Spencer Lee says, excuses are for wusses.
It’s time for the Iowa rushing attack to live up to its reputation for a change.
It’s time for Iowa to average at least 200 rushing yards per game, and to avoid having those games where the ground attack gets shut down, making the offense one-dimensional.
Goodson has proven that he can make defenders miss, but like any great running back, he still needs help. He needs a little room to operate in order to best showcase his skills.
Petras also needs an effective running game to make his job easier in the pocket.
In addition to Goodson at running back, Iowa also has Ivory Kelly-Martin, a fifth-year senior who started six games at running back in 2018, including the season opener.
Kelly-Martin has recovered from December knee surgery and is expected to form a nice one-two punch with Goodson.
“Tyler is just a dynamic player, Petras said. “He could be a lightning rod any time he touches the ball, that’s great.
“I can’t really say enough about Ivory Kelly-Martin, too. He’s a great veteran. He’s looking really good as well. So I’m excited for the room. We’ve got some good young guys as well.”
The good young guys to whom Petras was referring is redshirt freshmen running backs Leshon Williams and Gavin Williams, and true freshman Deavin Hilson.
It’ll probably be hard for any of them to get significant playing time unless injuries occur. But they still have to be ready because injuries are always a threat, especially at running back.
“Guys are going to get hurt this year,” Brian Ferentz said. “Other teams are going to have guys who get hurt. Who’s going to handle that better?
The Iowa rushing attack can’t afford to start slowly this season because that could be disastrous with Indiana and Iowa State the first two opponents.
One of the most popular excuses for Iowa’s rushing woes is that opponents always stuff the box daring Iowa to throw.
And while that often is true, opponents also stuff the box against Wisconsin, and yet, the Badgers still usually find a way to gain yards on the ground.
This column could be written before the start of every season because the running game is that important, and because Iowa is usually built to run, at least on paper.
But it seems even more crucial this season due to the circumstances.
It might be a long time again before Iowa has the top center in the country blocking for a first-team All-Big Ten running back with big-play capability.
So in other words, it’s time for the Iowa offense to seize the moment and live up to its reputation for a change.