IOWA CITY, Iowa — Akrum Wadley walked into a far corner of Kinnick Stadium’s media room and his frustration was evident.
Wadley, Iowa’s junior running back, carefully straddled an ambiguous line between voicing his opinion and openly questioning his coaches. The Hawkeyes dropped a 38-31 game to Northwestern on Saturday and nobody was happy. That included Wadley.
When asked whether the team gave up on the running game too early, Wadley exhaled. He paused five seconds. Then with his gravelly voice, said, “Next question.”
What Wadley didn’t say is what the coaches should admit. The Hawkeyes left their running game turned on in the garage.
In a winnable game, the coaching staff abandoned the running game just as it was working. With a four-point lead early in the second half, Iowa ran the ball on three successive plays to set up a third-and-4 at the Northwestern 7-yard line. Iowa chose to pass, picked up only a yard and had to kick a field goal.
But that possession has nothing on the next offensive series. After the Wildcats stormed 75 yards in 11 plays to tie the game, Iowa took over at its 37. A false start penalty backed Iowa five yards, but, after two successful passes, the Hawkeyes stared at third-and-3. In a completely predictable outcome, Iowa lined up with three wide receivers and quarterback C.J. Beathard in the shotgun. Beathard was sacked to end the drive.
Northwestern zoomed 77 yards in five plays on its next possession to take a 31-24 lead. Iowa again went three-and-out, all passing plays. The final play, again, was a Wildcats sack. After Iowa’s punt, the Wildcats drove 80 yards in seven plays to push their advantage to 38-24. In the middle of Northwestern’s 21-0 run, Iowa ran six plays for zero total yards and wiped only 3 minutes, 53 seconds off the clock. The Wildcats sandwiched 23 plays for 232 yards in 10:30 around the Hawkeyes’ inefficiency.
At first glance, that sounds like a defensive problem. And it is. At 182.8 yards allowed per game, Iowa’s rush defense is the program’s worst since coach Kirk Ferentz’s second season in 2000. But football is a team game, and the best way to neutralize your greatest deficiency is to limit your opponent’s opportunities at exploiting it.
Iowa’s second major issue is keeping Beathard upright. The senior quarterback has suffered 14 sacks already this season, including six on Saturday. Not only do the hits turn into negative yardage plays, they provide a cumulative effect on Beathard’s efficiency and the team’s confidence.
That’s why running the football is so important for a team with those holes, and even more so for a line-of-scrimmage program like Iowa. That’s why it’s so perplexing why the offensive staff gives up on it for stretches at a time.
Last year, the Hawkeyes rushed for 294 yards at Northwestern. Iowa’s stat book from Saturday says 79 yards on 41 carries. Those typically are numbers that force teams away from the run. But considering Iowa lost 42 rushing yards on sacks, it’s worth re-evaluating.
Iowa strives for offensive balance, which it achieved in the second quarter with 12 runs and eight passes. The Hawkeyes moved with a faster pace and scored a pair of touchdowns to take a 21-17 lead. Counting sacks, Iowa rushed five times for 2 yards in the third quarter.
“When you get six sacks, your negative yardage is going to hurt you, and when we never get a rhythm or tempo going … we’re not doing that enough right now, and part of that is the stuff that we inflicted upon ourselves,” Ferentz said.
LeShun Daniels rushed for 72 yards and a score. Wadley scored two rushing touchdowns.
“I do believe we should have run the ball more, but things happen like that,” Wadley said. “I feel with me and LeShun, we got the running game going a little bit.”
The running game is Iowa’s best shot at keeping its weak run defense off the field and preventing Beathard from getting hurt. But the more Iowa continues to quick-shoot the ball — a basketball analogy — the further the program drifts from its goals.