By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – What’s wrong with the Iowa running game?
It’s a question that those not overly familiar with Hawkeye football would be shocked to know how often gets asked during the season.
The fact that Iowa is currently ranked 12th in the conference in rushing and averaging just 121.3 rushing yards per game, and just 3.3 yards per carry, really shouldn’t come as a surprise to those familiar with Hawkeye football.
Because since 2005, only once has Iowa finished higher than fifth in the Big Ten in rushing, and that was in 2008 when the Hawkeyes, led by Doak Walker Award winner Shonn Greene, ranked fourth in the conference in rushing.
Iowa has finished 10th or lower in the conference in rushing seven times since 2005, including 12th in both 2011 and 2012.
So, the fact that Iowa’s running game is sputtering hardly should come as a surprise, but there is reason for concern heading into Friday’s game at 4-0 Maryland because if ever there was a game in which the Iowa rushing attack needs to rise to the occasion, this is the game.
Maryland has a quick-strike offense and is led by one of the Big Ten’s most dynamic quarterbacks in junior Taulia Tagovailoa, who leads the conference in passing at 335.0 yards per game. Tagovailoa is also a threat to run and has only thrown one interception this season.
Probably the best way to contain the Maryland offense is to keep it on the sideline.
And the best way for Iowa to accomplish that would be to ground and pound behind a methodical rushing attack that consistently moves the chains and burns time off the clock.
“Obviously, it sucks when you’re not running the ball like you want to,” said Iowa All-America center Tyler Linderbaum. “But just little gains over time. We know it’s going to click. It’s going to click soon.
“Just trusting the course, trusting our coaches and trusting each other. And that’s what we’ve kind of been focusing on.”
Iowa’s offensive players blame the rushing woes and a lack of execution, and on not handling the little details. And that’s what you would expect then to say because they certainly wouldn’t blame it on a lack of talent or a lack of coaching.
So, if it is just a lack of execution and not taking care of the little details, then Friday’s game would be the ideal time to prove it by executing and by taking care of the little details.
“We just have to keep getting better,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. “That’s the biggest thing. Just keep working at it. As I said Saturday, I think we’ve got to provide better direction maybe, a little better scheme, and execute better. It’s a combination of both things to try to figure out what we can do well.”
In other words, there is no magic formula to fix the running game.
The Iowa offense showed some explosiveness in last Saturday’s 24-14 victory over Colorado State with five plays gaining more than 20 yards, including a 43-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Spencer Petras to freshman receiver Keagan Johnson.
That will give the Maryland defensive coaches something to consider as they devise a game plan for Iowa.
“It’s very big. I think we’re starting to show teams that we can throw the ball,” said junior running back Tyler Goodson, who leads Iowa in rushing with 364 yards. “Once teams realize that we can throw the ball and we can spread the ball out to different types of receivers and have those guys make different types of plays, it’ll open up the box for us.”
Most opposing defenses load the box against Iowa in order to contain the running game, but also because they don’t fear Iowa’s passing attack.
Maryland is likely to load the box and dare Petras to pass.
Colorado State used that strategy, but Petras made the Rams pay for it.
Goodson has shown that he can make big plays if he gets in space. The problem has been getting him in space on a consistent basis.
Petras, like most pro-style quarterbacks, is at his best when he can use play action to keep the defense off balance. However, it’s hard to have play action with a sputtering rushing attack.
Maryland has an aggressive and athletic defensive line that has helped to record 16 sacks in four games this season.
“With how physical we are in the run game, a lot of our plays are really down hill and our linemen our physical and we pride ourselves on that,” Petras said. “So, defenses want to stop the run and usually that means that there will be opportunities with play-action pass.
“Play action is great because a lot of time you can put guys in conflict, especially the linebackers and some safeties depending on the coverage and it presents some opportunities down the field.”
One of the biggest differences between Iowa and Maryland from an offensive standpoint is that Maryland doesn’t necessarily have to enter the red zone to score touchdowns due to its big-play capability.
Iowa is considered more physical than Maryland, so you would think that sustaining a productive running game shouldn’t be a problem.
But Iowa is often considered more physical than its opponent, and yet, the Iowa running game still often sputters.
It’s perhaps the biggest mystery about Hawkeye football under Kirk Ferentz.
Iowa has a reputation for being a running team, but the statistics don’t support that reputation.
Maryland expects to have a lively crowd for Friday’s game and is planning to have a “Black Out” at Maryland Stadium. The program announced on Monday that it is giving out 1,000 black t-shirts to the first 1,000 students in attendance.
Friday’s game will mark Iowa’s first trip to Maryland since 2014, a game the Hawkeyes lost 38-31.
Iowa has a better defense now compared to 2014, so that is reason for optimism.
“They’re a solid, sound defensive structure where year in and year out, this is what you see,” Maryland coach Mike Locksley said of the Iowa defense. “They are who they are. Our execution needs to be good.”
But even the best defense would wear down if it has to stay on the field for extended periods.
That’s why the Iowa running game has to rise to the occasion, and live up to its reputation for a change.
Maryland has improved considerably under Locksley, but it also has a history of unraveling in big games.
Prediction: Iowa 34, Maryland 21
Iowa vs. Maryland
When: Friday, 7 p.m.
Where: Maryland Stadium (51,802)
Series: Since Maryland joined the Big Ten, Iowa and the Terps have faced each other three times, with Iowa winning the past two games at Kinnick Stadium, 23-0 in 2018 and 31-15 in 2015.