PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Nearly two dozen family members and friends sporting black-and-gold shirts with the number 25 huddled around the entryway at High Point Solutions Stadium more than 30 minutes before one of Iowa’s six buses pulled inside the parking ramp.
They were there to see Akrum Wadley, one of their own. A local boy who left Newark and made good 1,000 miles away. His high school football team was there. So was his mother and his 1-year-old daughter, Ava. This was their celebration, and the only thing missing was a cake. But Wadley was eating all the same.
Wadley, a junior running back, scored the game-winning touchdown on a 26-yard run midway through the fourth quarter to lift the Hawkeyes to a 14-7 win at Rutgers on Saturday.
The game’s biggest play was made by the day’s brightest star.
“Almost gave out 40 tickets,” Wadley said. “I had an older cousin that bought a bus for the tickets. They came up here on a bus. I know my high school team came up here, my coaches came. It just felt like homecoming out at this stadium.”
Nobody was more excited to play in New Jersey than Wadley, who smiled every time he spoke of returning home within the last week. He attended basketball games at Rutgers and was aggravated nobody recruited him to play there. He kept his poise during a whirlwind of distractions this week. As he sat in a team hotel Friday night, he knew his family and friends were nearby. He tried to balance between anticipation and focus.
“We were excited for him to be able to come play Rutgers and play in his hometown,” said senior running back LeShun Daniels. “So obviously we’re trying to tell him, ‘Don’t do anything out of the ordinary. You’ve got to treat it like an every-day game because your plays are going to come. You’re going to go out there and make plays. Stick with it, you trust it and don’t try to do too much.'”
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz knew this day was special for Wadley, but he preferred a level approach rather than provide extra pressure.
“We don’t make too much of a big deal of it other than worry about guys being too jeeped up or trying to do too much because they are in front of their hometown, family, friends,” Ferentz said.
Wadley’s touchdown run was based on a traditional Iowa staple. It was a short-side outside zone to the left with the tight end on the right side. Left tackle Cole Croston and left guard Boone Myers won their individual battles at the line of scrimmage. Iowa fullback Drake Kulick latched on to middle linebacker Deonte Roberts, and center James Daniels buried nose tackle Sebastian Joseph.
Wide receiver Jerminic Smith, who has emerged as a solid downfield blocker, handled Rutgers cornerback Blessuan Austin just as Wadley cut to the sideline. Smith stayed engaged with Austin until Wadley passed them at the 15. Wadley burst along the edge and sprinted untouched into the end zone.
“There are certain runs that LeShun’s better at and some that Akrum’s better at,” Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard said. “That was definitely one where we like having Akrum in there. He turned the corner and ended up getting down the field and scoring.”
Wadley finished with a team-best 84 rushing yards on 12 carries. He added two catches for 30 yards.
Afterward, Wadley met with his family, friends and proteges. He posed for pictures, embraced those closest to him and reveled in attention. The postgame revelry was like his own little parade, and he was the homecoming king.
“I’m going to remember this for the years after I graduate,” Wadley said. “It was a great game. Both teams played their hearts out. We competed, we focused. We came out victorious. It was our day.
“Leaving this … it’s going to be a long, long way home, but I’m going to miss playing in here. I’m going to miss Jersey, I already miss my family, I tried to hold back some tears.
“The feeling is priceless.”