Saturday's 10-3 loss at Michigan was the latest example of the Iowa running game failing to deliver

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Mekhi Sargent fights for yards against Middle Tennessee State. Photo by Jasmine Vong

By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa – In no way is this column an attempt to minimize or dismiss the eight sacks that were allowed against Michigan, but the inability to sustain a rushing attack hurt the Iowa offense more than anything else because it opened the floodgates to dysfunction.

Iowa’s running game, more times than not, has failed to deliver against ranked opponents, especially on the road, with this past Saturday’s 10-3 loss at Michigan the latest sobering example.

The fact that Iowa only had one yard rushing against Michigan is sort of misleading because that total includes Nate Stanley’s minus-65 yards rushing on eight sacks.

But take away the eight sacks and Iowa still only gained 66 yards on 22 attempts, which averages out to just three yards per carry.

Toren Young was the only Iowa player to average more than 2.5 yards per carry against Michigan as he rushed for 40 yards on eight attempts for a respectable 5.0 yards-per-carry average.

Now don’t get me wrong, the eight sacks were inexcusable and cause for concern, but Iowa's inability to sustain a rushing attack created the right circumstance for Michigan to dominate.

The performance of the Iowa offensive line against Michigan left much to be desired, while Stanley also struggled to react to Michigan’s relentless blitzing.

“We need to play better as a whole,” said freshman center Tyler Linderbaum. “Eight sacks, first off, is unacceptable and we’ve got to learn from it.”

Stanley and his offensive cohorts suffered a complete breakdown during a game in which the Iowa defense performed admirably.

Michigan had some early success running the ball, and also had one pass completion that gained 51 yards. But that was about it as Michigan finished with just 267 total yards and was 3-for-13 on third-down conversions.

The Wolverines did have 120 rushing yards, which even without Stanley's sacks, nearly doubled Iowa’s total on the ground. But that says more about Iowa’s performance on the ground than what Michigan did.

"I think every opponent you have your own unique game plan," Kirk Ferentz said after Saturday's loss, which lowered Iowa's record to 4-1 overall and 1-1 in the Big Ten. "You try to match up with what you feel will give your team the best chance to move the ball, and most importantly, score points.

"So yeah, we came in with a plan that we felt was good. I think we had a good week of practice and good execution. The bottom line today is their tempo, and once they get momentum, it's tough to stop them." 

Every football team becomes more vulnerable when it fails to sustain a rushing attack. But that is especially true with Iowa because its offense is built around using the running game to stay ahead of the chains in order to control tempo, to manage the clock and to establish play action.

It's hard to see Iowa defeating No. 10 Penn State (5-0) this coming Saturday at Kinnick Stadium if its running game sputters.

Iowa has a 21-10 record since the start of the 2017 season, and with Stanley starting at quarterback, and in each of the 10 losses, Iowa had fewer than 150 rushing yards, and in seven of the losses, Iowa had fewer than 100 rushing yards.

The narrative has changed dramatically over the past two games with Iowa having gone from shredding Middle Tennessee State for 351 rushing yards during a 48-3 beat-down on Sept. 28 at Kinnick Stadium to gaining just one yard on the ground at Michigan.

Much was written and said after the Middle Tennesse State game about Iowa having four reliable options at running back, and a rock-solid offensive line to help pave the way for big things on the ground.

But now in the wake of the Michigan debacle, some are questioning Iowa's zone blocking schemes and whether Mekhi Sargent still should be starting at running back and if Brian Ferentz is worthy of being his father's offensive coordinator.

In both case, it's over-reacting to success and failure.

Iowa has used zone blocking schemes throughout Kirk Ferentz's time as head coach, but some feel that approach is outdated and too reactionary, and they use Wisconsin's dominance on the ground from using gap blocking schemes to support their argument.

The problem I have with that argument is that Kirk Ferentz's area expertise is the offensive line, and he has built that reputation over four decades, both in college and in the NFL. So shouldn't Kirk Ferentz know more about what blocking schemes work than the media and fans on social media?

But with that being said, Iowa's running game has often been over-rated under Kirk Ferentz, so it's no wonder why some fans question his philosophy.

Iowa often gets compared to Wisconsin because they both are considered power running teams, but there really is no comparison as evidenced by the Badgers rushing for over 300 yards during a 35-14 victory over Michigan on Sept. 21 in Madison, Wis.

Wisconsin's dominance on the ground goes far beyond blocking schemes, however.

The Badgers almost always have better running backs than Iowa with junior All-American Jonathan Taylor the latest example. Other examples include Melvin Gordon, Montee Ball, Ron Dayne, Terrell Fletcher and Brent Moss.

Wisconsin, more times than not, also has better receivers than Iowa, and that ultimately helps the running game because it gives defenses more to think about on the perimeter and that makes it harder to load the box.

Another factor to consider as to why Iowa's rushing attack has a history of coming up short in big games is that Iowa usually has a quarterback who lacks mobility, and that is especially true with the 6-foot-4, 243-pound Stanley.

His lack of mobility makes Stanley reluctant to leave the pocket and that makes it easier for the defenses to load the box and contain him, as was the case against Michigan.

So again, the eight sacks that Iowa allowed against Michigan were inexcusable and costly, but they were also caused in part by Stanley's lack of mobility and by the running game not producing.

Some have suggested to me that Brian Ferentz abandoned the running game too soon against Michigan and that kept Iowa from having a chance to be balanced on offense.

Maybe there is some truth to that, but Kirk Ferentz also has been criticized for being too predictable because he relies too much on the running game and doesn't take enough chances down field.

There is also a push from fans, and from some in the media, to get more playing time for true freshman running back Tyler Goodson, who led Iowa with 62 receiving yards against Michigan. But in fairness to Brian Ferentz, Goodson has played a significant role in each of the five games and has 217 rushing yards.

Goodson also still struggles with pass protection at times, which is understandable given his lack of experience.

Sargent has been the starter at running back since late last season, and until the Michigan game, he had shown why by producing on the field. But Sargent fumbled on Iowa's first play from scrimmage against Michigan and then never found a rhythm.

Goodson certainly deserves to be on the field, but so does Sargent, and one bad game shouldn't erase Sargent's body of work.

As bad as the Michigan game was from a rushing and from a pass protection standpoint, it still was just one game.

It'll all probably be forgotten if Iowa defeats Penn State on Saturday and if the running game does its part.

But in both cases, that's a big if.

 

A disturbing pattern

Iowa has 21-10 record since the start of the 2017 seasons. In each of the 10 losses, Iowa was held to fewer than 150 rushing yards, and to fewer than 100 yards in seven of the losses.

Opponent, score, rushing attempts-yards

2019

Michigan, 10-3, 30-1

2018

Wisconsin, 28-17, 31-148

Penn State, 30-24, 38-135

Purdue, 38-36, 37-118

Northwestern, 14-10, 22-64

2017

Penn State, 21-19, 23-82

Michigan State, 17-10, 25-19

Northwestern, 17-10, 33-89

Wisconsin, 38-14, 26-25

Purdue, 24-15, 38-82