IOWA CITY, Iowa — When Levi Paulsen entered the huddle to play right guard Saturday, Ike Boettger passed on two words of encouragement.
But before the two could man the right side of the Iowa offensive line, Paulson was removed. A timeout allowed Sean Welsh to return instead of sitting out one play after having his helmet fly off during the game.
The shuffling next to Boettger at guard didn’t phase the offensive tackle. He’s used to it. Change is the only constant on the offensive line this season.
“That’s just how it is,” Boettger said.
Iowa is starting to find success with its running game amidst the chaos up front. That’s good, because Iowa can’t afford to let the injuries that are piling up on the line be an excuse against No. 10 Wisconsin on Saturday (noon ET, ESPN).
The Hawkeyes must find a way to run the ball. It’s how this rivalry is won.
That’s not a big revelation for two teams that prefer to run over opponents, but this may be: The winning team the last three years doesn’t just outrun the other. It was done in the same manner Usain Bolt pulls away from competitors in the 100-meter dash.
If Iowa is to win this game, it’s going to be on the ground.
The good news is the Hawkeyes are coming off their best performance of the season, churning out 365 rushing yards against Purdue. The bad news is it won’t be as easy against Wisconsin, which ranks 13th nationally in rush defense, allowing only 106.2 rushing yards per game.
It complicates matters that more may be known about the Bermuda Triangle than the Iowa offensive line. Both starting tackles, Cole Croston and Boone Myers, were called day-to-day with foot injuries by coach Kirk Ferentz on Tuesday. Croston missed the Purdue game last week and isn’t listed on the depth chart.
The injuries don’t end there. Losing tight end George Kittle to a leg injury for the game would be as bad for the rushing attack as either tackle.
“Just grind, day by day, just try to be focused on us right now,” running back Akrum Wadley said.
That might as well be the motto for the offensive line.
They’ve ground through injury. Boettger is the only starter not to miss time.
They’ve ground through rough stretches. The run game was non-existent for most of the Northwestern and North Dakota State games.
They’ve ground toward becoming a run-first team. And they’ll need to be one to knock off a top-10 opponent this weekend.
“We are getting a little more confidence running the ball,” Boettger said. “That’s what we want our identity to be. We are constantly focusing on that. There is always a lot of work to be done. I think we have taken steps forward. The key this week is taking another step forward.”
It may very well decide if Iowa wins. It’s a lot to place on the offensive line, even if the shoulders are broad across the unit.
But there may be no other choice.
“It’s just every guy doing his job,” Boettger said, “focusing on doing his job and not really thinking about who is this guy next to me.”
That mindset helped revive the running game. It’s going to be a necessity with the Badgers.
“Right now, there are injuries,” quarterback C.J. Beathard said. “But there are injuries on every team in the country. It doesn’t matter who is in there at guard, tackle, center. We expect them to protect well and do a good job at that.”
It’s not just an expectation. It must be a requirement, otherwise Iowa won’t beat Wisconsin.