IOWA CITY, Iowa — The Iowa rushing numbers against Illinois look good. Really good.
The Hawkeyes racked up 191 yards in their last game against Illinois. Running back Akrum Wadley topped the century mark. It’s exactly what the coaches want to see.
The only problem is it doesn’t mean anything. Not on its own.
It’s impossible to gauge progress against an opponent such as Illinois (2-4, 0-3 Big Ten) that has seen little go right this season.
That’s why coach Kirk Ferentz mentioned he would be watching the rushing attack for improvement over the final six games.
It won’t take long to get an answer. Northwestern is a litmus test for the running game. If Iowa made substantial progress against Illinois and in the bye week, it will show up on Saturday at Northwestern (noon, ESPN2).
Overall, the Iowa rushing numbers aren’t good.
The run game is like a teenager learning to drive a manual transmission. It’s a bumpy ride with a lot of starts and stops.
“Really it’s a program point of emphasis,” coach Kirk Ferentz said. “It’s something we try to do a good job of and pride ourselves on. We’re not where we want to be for a lot of reasons right now.”
The list is pretty lengthy. The holes aren’t big enough for the ball carriers. Iowa is struggling to pick up the blitz and move the ball against eight-man defensive fronts. A lack of success on first down in recent weeks doesn’t help either, forcing Iowa into second- and third-and-long situations that are difficult to convert.
The Iowa offense works best when the ground game is humming along. It lets the offense move the chains and obtain the run-pass balance it seeks.
It’s why, for offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, the run game starts with fixing the yards per carry average.
“If you look at just a baseline number, when you look at yards per carry, usually it is representative of where you’re at for a season,” he said. “That’s a really good number to look at. … I know this, if you’re averaging over 5 a carry, you have a pretty good football team typically, pretty good run game, it’s pretty healthy. If you’re somewhere around 4 1/2, you’re probably playing winning football, at least for us and our numbers, but if you’re below that, it’s not good enough.”
Iowa averaged 5.0 yards per carry against Illinois. A focus on fundamentals and shuffling up the offensive line helped bump up the number. Sean Welsh looked more comfortable at his natural position of guard instead of right tackle, and freshman tackle Tristan Wirfs wasn’t overwhelmed in his first start.
“Certainly the last game I thought we ran the ball better, looked a little bit more like what we’d hoped to look like,” Kirk Ferentz said. “Hopefully we made some strides over the last week and hopefully we’ll continue to do so this week.”
The head coach said “hopefully” for a reason. No one knows for sure, even if the recent changes look like the first step in finding a run game solution.
If there is any substantial growth it should show this week. Northwestern is a step up in competition from Illinois, but not as good as No. 3 Penn State or Michigan State. They combined to hold Iowa to 101 rushing yards.
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A failure to run the ball on Northwestern is a sign of a bigger problem. A good running day is an indication this season could be like last season, where everything clicks in place by November.
So what qualifies as progress? The Wildcats hold opponents to 3.4 yards per carry. Approaching the 5.0 mark would be a positive sign. So would Wadley recording his second straight 100-yard game, especially if he does it efficiently and Iowa goes ahead with plans to avoid overusing him.
The run game is the most important part of Iowa’s offense. It’s the heart and soul to the unit. Penn State and Michigan State showed ripping it away neuters the offense.
“We are best when we get first downs,” center James Daniels said, “chipping away 4- or 5-yard runs, an 8-yard run, a 6-yard pass. That is when we are the best. In the second half of the Illinois game that is what we were doing.”
Daniels said he is certain the toughest defense the Hawkeyes face is their own in practice.
“They give us the best look of pretty much anybody,” Daniels said. “If we are run blocking our defense well we are able to run against anybody well.”
He said he liked how the run game looked during the bye week. He chalks it up as another sign the run game is ready to take off.
Daniels won’t say it’s arrived, though. At least, not before Saturday.
“Practice matters,” he said, “but it really matters how it shows up in the game.”